Was the Milwaukee date of Samaritan Ministries' Midwest Grooves Tour a gospel concert or a festival of ecumenism?
Midwest Grooves Tour Featuring Liz Vice
21 September 2018
Presented by one of the Christian-based healthcare-sharing ministries exempt from Obamacare's regulations, it would be reasonable to assume there be Christocentric music within it. And indeed, there was, but mixed with other beliefs not bound by biblical orthodoxy. It seems Samaritan might be influenced by the current, heterodox vogue of seeker'meregent/social justice/"red letter" Christianity and/or there was a bit of quality control in terms of vetting the acts comprising the bill. Either way, it was a pretty different experience to see Billboard Gospel Albums charting Liz Vice and longtime holy hip-hopper Propaganda at Shank Hall, an alcohol-inclusive venue on Milwaukee's East Side where I've caught blues, Americana, folk, country and power pop, but never anyone I'd expect on, say, BET's rap music video programming or Get Up Morning with Erica Campbell.
And in Liz Vice's case, her exemption from the soul gospel radio mainstream is really too bad. Though she came to my attention via the Southern California roots music blog The Bluegrass Situation and has received coverage in outlets such as National Public Radio, like ladies stylistically diverse as Patsy Moore and Jamie Grace*, one might think her ethnicity would allow her to rub shoulders on radio with Tamela Mann and Koryn Hawthorne to give the format some textural variety. Vice isn't given to belting, wailing nor whooping, but some of the production on her current long-player, Save Me, would fit the genre within the confines of, for instance, the Lee Williams & The Spiritual QC's show I caught the week prior, and arguably, her first project, There Is a Light , has more such moments.
But at Shank, she was going for a minimal, singer-songwriterly ambiance that served to highlight her self-professed vulnerability. The lone keyboardist standing to her right and back a couple feet back made for stark contrast to arrangements the often more fleshed out arrangements on Save. With her bare feet, baggy blue jeans and frequent urging for the mostly Millennial-looking crowd to join her in singing her songs' choruses, she resembled a 30-something earth mother seeking communion with her children. In that way, Vice evoked a spiritual tenor not far from that of a church service approaching its most serene.
As for the faith that would compel a believer to go to service, Vice was elliptical about framing her songs from the explicitly Christian perspective one would naturally read into them if listening to her as a gospel singer. She identified "Drift Away" as an iteration of a hymn she recalled from her childhood, but "Fancy Feet" she prefaced as a paean of personal empowerment without referencing the eternal, omnipotent Source from Whom all power derives. Vice's songwriting even expresses some ambiguity about Christianity as a belief established on objective fact; the repeated plea on "Save Me" to the Lord to deliver her "from myself...from my own hell" could be taken as the personalization of perdition and not the reality of a place of eternal wrath. Either way, she sells it with sweet yearning.
She did likewise with, of all songs, Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," which she urged the audience to sing along with her in its entirety. And, perhaps confirming the 2006 pop hit 's status as a kind of modern day standard, many did. Within the context of what could be contextualized as a gospel concert, lyrics Cee-Lo Green originally so grittily sang such as " My heroes had the heart to lose their lives out on the limb/All I remember is thinking I want to be like them" could have Christocentric application; whether that was Vice's intention with them, she didn't make clear of that aesthetic left turn.
Also seemingly further left, politically speaking, was her set-up for "Brick By Brick" near the end of her set. She spoke of the same 2017 weekend wherein there was protest in her old home town of Portland against President Trump's travel ban from certain nations-not all of them Islamicly ruled-and the white supremacist demonstration against the removal of a Confederate military figure's statue from a public park in Charlottesville (infiltrated as it was by fascist Antifa adherents [but I repeat myself...] and other leftists seeking to, and succeeding in, stirring the pot further and fatally). Vice showed acute compassion in questioning why white power acolytes and immigration protesters would feel so inferior as to think that they were being replaced by darker-skinned people and foreigners.
Conversely, that sentiment also belies some possible naivete when it comes to the economic component of the immigration debate, both in terms of taxpayer-funded benefits to purported and legitimate refugees and the probably lower price point for their at least often as not unskilled labor in the job market. Furthermore, it possible to assume that Vice may be at odds with the biblical revelation of God setting nation's borders and its precept of government legitimately brandishing the sword in order to foil enemies within and without those nations (see Acts 17 and Romans 13, Bible-ophiles). And surely, illegal aliens who rape, drive drunkenly into committing manslaughter and outright murder and jihadis bent on enforcing cultural and judicial sharia by means lethal to themselves and whom they brand as infidels are enemies to civil order and constitutional governance worth keeping at bay, yes?
Vice may be referencing the long-proposed wall on the U.S,.'s southern border in "Brick," but its intent, however fun it was to link arm-to- arm with the pretty collegian in a plaid skirt while singing its chorus under Vice's direction and the song's keening prettiness, her apparent belief that love in and of itself is supreme conquering force over evil while we're all still earthbound comes off like a slightly sanctified iteration of the godless, pacifistic squishiness of John Lennon's commensurately melodically winning "Imagine." In a fallen world that groans in its anticipation of its returning Savior, it sometimes takes physical force and the protection of borders keep from feeling preventable effects of that fallenness.
Propaganda, effectively her co-headliner by dint of the length of his set and both of them pictured on the head of the drum kit his percussionist was using, joined Vice for a couple of closing numbers including a tribute to recently late r&b queen Aretha Franklin. Prop' cajoled everyone to sing along with Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman," including the dudes in the crowd; I just mouthed along because I'd rather stick to just identifying with "natural" as a descriptor, thanks much. Vice deserves commendation for retrieving the song's lyrics from her smartphoneman and still selling them with gusto.
As for Propaganda, he seemed a much more likable, relatable and animated performer than when I saw him a couple years ago on a bill with Andy Mineo. It could be that he didn't have Mineo's louche character to rub off on him? In any case, the rapper/poet/spoken word artist who opened for Vicemay want to consider adding "comedian" to his credentials as a polymath. Dude was genuinely hilarious in his spiel for Samaritan, what with his relating an incident where his 13 year-old daughter neglected to lock her seat belt when dads car was rear-ended and pleading with his listeners not to get fired if they have jobs with adequate medical benefits. Pitching the sponsor's service to a crowd that may not be entirely Christian may not be in accord with Samaritan's mission statement to only cover kin in Him, but I'm not going to begrudge anyone wanting to get out from the redistributionist tyranny of Obama(RationingOf)Care if they can abide by the ministry's guidelines. Prop' must feel likewise?
Where he and I part, though, are on the suppositions of some of his raps. Among his complaints in "Cynical" is one about-you guessed?-the current president and his policies in immigration and borders policy, citing the kind of boilerplate inanities about everyone's undocumented. Lurve your flow, Prop', but not quite, brother. That kind of talk may fly with the Evangelical Immigration Roundtable funded by globalist billionaire George Soros, and their fell travelers at Sojourners and The Wild Goose Festival, but Scripture says otherwise. There's such a thing as citizenship, and it should have its advantages.
More problematic than that, though is "Andrew Mandela." It should be a given that Andrew Jackson deserves denunciation for his hand in the North America's indigenous peoples, but to conflate that with lionizing Nelson Mandela is, at best, historically ignorant. I would instead like to hear so talented a rhymer as Propaganda instead decry the terrorist braceleting (tossing a tire on someone, dousing it and the person in it with gasoline and setting it all ablaze) of avowed, Che Guevara-inspired Communists Nelson and wife Winnie's African National Congress and how such crimes, so heinous that Amnesty International refused to defend the couple in war crimes trials, and how such behavior delayed the end of racist apartheid laws by several years. Would that Prop' also connect the dots from the Nelsons' atrocities to the South African government's current theft of land owned by white farm families for centuries, with Bibles placed on many of the slain bodies of those who died in Christ. That many willfully ignorant Christian leaders such as Southern Baptist Convention president Al Mohler laud ol' Nelson M. while practically questioning the salvation of anyone who would vote for Donald Trump (not a perfect person nor president) may not abet the cause of Propaganda and others so mislead to learn better, alas.
So, yeah, Prop' touched a raw nerve or two on me, but there's no taking away his talent. Even if he says what he says is born of what he feels and not what actually us-he may want some balance there if the aforementioned numbers are any sufficient evidence-his varied flow and deep, but conversational, voice remind me of so much that was likable about jazz/r&b singer/spoken word speaker Gil Scott-Heron; it would have been a hoot to have seen Scott sport the thin, lanky dreadlocks Prop' keeps growing, too And when he goes kind of pre-evangelistic by rapping about his listeners' preciousness in the sight of a loving God, what's not to like? Making his artistry even more compelling are that drummer of his (Alex Knight, if I caught his name rightly), laying down the boom-bap with no machines other than his hands and feet, and prolific veteran Christian hip-hop DJ Sean P., who looked to have on his table one turntable, a Macbook laptop computer and other electronics. Much as I'd like to see a better-educated Propaganda not affirming some of the cultural Marxism his many 20-something devotees are getting from academia and media and maybe even be more explicit about his beliefs, there's no doubt he brings the show.
The local openers are where things got truly ecumenical, though. Milwaukee folkies Twila Jean and Francesca are, respectively, a Unitarian-Universalist ("That means I question everything," she admitted) and a Jewess. Jean was more explicit in expressing her spirituality, however she would define it beyond her denominational label. Numbers such as "Redemption," with a music video wherein she portrays an angel (!), and "Bring Me Your Dark" in their plainspokenness aim for human reconciliation through friendliness and the subjugation of pain through compassion. Without the transcendent grounding of faith in Christ, that's about the best one can do, but Jean does it decently with an earnestness that must go over well when she plays her city's acoustic venues such as The Coffee House.
Francesca is a semi-regular Coffee House presence, too but for the more fun of her two songs as a soloist (she otherwise sang back-up for La Twila), she, instead of her faith, portrayed an amiable feminism. "Viva La Femme" is all about the attraction to and trouble with her sex's bosomly pulchritude. Though a bit bawdy, she ends on a hopeful note with a plea for a breast cancer cure. Fran' has been a friend since she and I met at a Coffee House-related picnic in 2015, but this first time seeing her perform has me primed to hear her assay a longer set. Her persona of a diminutive grandma who started singing for public audiences later in life than many in her position makes for a winning image that complements songs even more serious than "Femme."
-Jamie Lee Rake
https://www.ReverbNation.com/TwilaJean (looks to need some updating)