Front page photo by Andy Warrener
A few drops of rain slipped off the Skipperdome’s old oak trees and onto the crowd at one point on Thursday night. Parker Millsap was onstage working through “The Villain” from a self-titled 2014 album. The song is something between a meditation and a love letter saying goodbye. It’s a quiet tune on record, and as three electric fans blew soft wind on the faces of an attentive crowd, “The Villain” felt a little like a baptism where the audience was being anointed by the next great voice in Americana.
Millsap, all of 23-years old and draped in a Mickey Mouse baseball t-shirt that could have been bought by his parents on yesterday’s trip to Disney World, stood there after the song, and then walked into his cover of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move.” Parker’s vocal — which goes from demonically throaty to angelic throughout the course of his set — would proceed to dance along Dan Foulks’s fiddle and affirm what everyone in that crowd thought they knew before Millsap’s Tampa Bay debut: this boy is the real thing.
Millsap is not your average Dick or Harry, but the question is “how?”
The baby-faced Millsap won’t have to shave once on his eight-date run through the South with Sarah Jarosz, but he sings with the guttural grit of men three times his age. His pen is loaded with sadness, humor, color and the kind of wisdom & poetry normally reserved for volumes where names like Steinbeck, Hemingway and Carver grace the covers. He’s covered so much emotional territory on three albums (a 2012 debut, Palisades; 2014’s Parker Millsap; this year’s The Very Last Day) that it’s strange to think about how much more of it he definitely has inside of his young, slender frame.
His band, which includes Foulks and Millsap’s childhood friend Michael Rose on bass, might as well have created the hole in the carpet of the stage with their foot-stomping. They are a dangerous force that could probably carry frontmen with even the tinniest of voices. They just happen to have a Howitzer at the mic, and that’s scary.
The whole evening might as well be frightening to anyone in the old guard and afraid of change because Millsap and co-headliner Sarah Jarosz truly are the future of the genre. They’ve respectfully borrowed from and cemented themselves in the space created by the likes of Robert Johnson, Lightnin Hopkins Loretta Lynn and Alison Krauss. For over two hours on Thursday, they gave us a glimpse into the reinvention of American, wood & steel music.
In his interview with CL, Millsap explained how he could never play Jarosz’s tunes since she employs all of the dozen tones the chromatic scale makes available. He wasn’t lying. The 25-year-old Texan is not intimidating onstage, but the ease with which she wields and whips her mandolins and banjo is criminal. Sometimes, especially with her eyes closed and head bobbing, it looks as if she has to concentrate on what’s coming through her fingers and off the fretboard. It’s also possible that she’s simply imagining those notes being fired off to dance colorfully through the air in some kind of synesthesia-induced hallucination.
Bluegrass and the nuances of picking seem elementary in the hands of Jarosz, and she seems to focus that extra energy on her songwriting and vocals. It sometimes comes off as quiet on records like her new one, Undercurrent, but the message rings heart achingly clear when she’s on stage confidently delivering transparent, stinging and brutally honest love songs.
Jarosz arguably has no chinks in the armor she’s been bringing on stage for over half a decade now. Still, there’s is a look in her eyes when bandmates — and even Millsap during the night’s final encore — play their guitars with their own effort-free recklessness. It suggests she wants to evolve from where she’s at musically and perhaps learn to sling the six-string like they do. When she finally does, and it puts it to tape, it might be lights out for everyone else. That will happen all in due time, but for now, it’s important to let Jarosz and Millsap grow slow.
Skipper’s is famous for hosting big names before they have their names in big theater lights (although the simple marquee in front of the north Tampa venue is iconic in itself), and while we may not get to see them in such intimate quarters anytime soon, it is good to know that we saw them when.
See more photos from the show below this setlist, and listen to songs from the set at Skipper's Smokehouse on September 29, 2016 by subscribing to this playlist.
Parker Millsap Setlist
I Hope I Die
Truck Stop Gospel
Wherever You Are
Other Arrangements (Unreleased)
You Gotta Move (Mississippi Fred McDowell)
The Very Last Day
Sarah Jarosz Setlist
House Of Mercy
Over the Edge
Fuel the Fire
Working Man Blues (Merle Haggard)
Take Me Back
Ring Them Bells (Bob Dylan)
Come On Up To The House (Tom Waits)