Parker Millsap wasn’t about to let anyone off the hook.
“We’re going to do a song about the end of everything,” the young Oklahoman told the crowd at ACL Live on Wednesday night as he began his first-ever taping of “Austin City Limits.” And just in case you didn’t catch his drift, he added: “More specifically, it’s about nuclear annihilation of the entire planet.”
It’s not like ACL was anticipating this atmosphere when they booked Millsap’s taping for the day after the presidential election. As it turned out, though, Millsap had precisely the right song for the occasion. “The Very Last Day,” the title track to his latest album, pulls no punches in its apocalyptic vision:
Ain’t no sweet chariot is gonna come
For to carry everybody home
No, instead it’s gonna be a bomb
And here it comes.
Delivered with Millsap’s trademark fire-and-brimstone fervor, “The Very Last Day” distilled the previous 24 hours into one three-minute hot take. That it came from a baby-faced 23-year-old who hails from one of the nation’s reddest states only underscored the realization that we’ve reached this reckoning point as one nation, however divided and divisible we may be.
The rest of Millsap’s performance was less momentous but still a strong showing of his considerable talents as a rising star in Americana music. With a three-piece backing crew of bassist Michael Rose, fiddler Daniel Foulks and drummer Patrick Ryan, Millsap ran through 15 songs in a little over an hour, traversing from revved-up rockabilly ravers to rambling country-folk groovers to feverish gospel-fueled shouters.
The focus was on the new album — he played nine of its 11 tracks — but he also drew from his two previous records, including the title track to his 2012 debut “Palisades,” recorded when Millsap was still a teenager. One thing that sets Millsap apart from many young artists is that he never lets the instrumentation overwhelm his voice.
That’s a smart move, as everything about his music hinges on his emotional impact as a singer. On Wednesday, whether he was stripping things down to an intimate core on the mid-set solo number “A Little Fire” or raising the roof with an almost Robert Plant-like wail on the burning encore number “Hades Pleads,” Millsap invested himself passionately in his words.
On this night, 24 hours after the tally counted two-thirds of Travis County voters for Hillary Clinton, the audience was noticeably subdued. Millsap picked up on that. “Still so quiet, wow,” he remarked near the end of the set, and while a few folks in the crowd responded with a whoop to help liven things up, there was no mistaking the mood of the moment.
Nor should there be. That’s why Millsap’s opening number was so perfectly chosen on this night. Shortly before the taping began, I posted a photo to Instagram and posed the question: “Is it possible to think about art and music less than 24 hours after what just happened?” The responses included “It’s essential” and “It’s cathartic” and “It’s possible and it’s imperative.”
All true — but sometimes it’s not because music gives you hope and lifts you up. Sometimes it’s because music won’t retreat from facing reality head-on. Music is at its peak not when it’s an escape from the world around us, but when it fully engages us with that world.
“Ain’t no shield can save you in that hour,” Millsap testified. “But I won’t cower.”