all photos by Jason Coile
There couldn’t have been a better venue than the Howard Theatre to experience a Millie Jackson show, circa 2012. The renewed and revitalized room, shiny and clean, big and bright with lights and giant screens, was abuzz last Friday evening as the mostly middle-aged patrons took their tables and finished their drinks and meals. When the curtain came up to reveal a ten-piece band, I know I was relieved, since the opener had sung solo to a music track. And when Millie made her entrance as the band went into “Breakin’ Up Somebody Else’s Home” I was also relieved, as I could tell she was fierce and ready for her first DC show in many years.
Millie Jackson is a 68-year-old R&B legend, whose biggest hits were in the 70s, but who never really disappeared, releasing recordings herself when no one else would. She is known as a comedienne as well as a singer – her albums and shows are filled with hilarious monologues about gender wars and politics, as on 1979’s Live and Uncensored, that round out her expressive vocals. Friday night’s show was no exception. Her banter and rapport with the audience was pointed and personal, by turns dirty and sharp. She has figured out how to undergird her comedy and great singing with an occasional seriousness which lends a layer of integrity to the whole shebang.
And it’s her smokey singing that still shows an incredible range. Her set falls into four kinds of songs: her original 70s hits (“If Loving You is Wrong”, “Hurts So Good”, “Put Something Down on It”), latter day songs culled from her 90s output and 2001’s Not for Church Folk (“The Lies that We Live”, “Leave Me Alone”, “I Wish It Would Rain Down”), and a truly interesting choice of cover songs (Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”, and her opener “Breakin’ Up Somebody Else’s Home”). And then there’s the comedic ones (“Phuck You Symphony”, “Old Bitches Got it Goin On”)
Just based on her encore alone, where the crowd got up from their seats and rushed the stage as she came back on, barefoot, and closed with the torchy and climactic “I Wish It Would Rain Down”, it’s hard not to feel a performer like this, who breathlessly throws such a generous show, needs to be seen by more people. She told me in our interview that it’s getting harder and harder to book shows, since it’s hard to find openers, and her contemporaries have slowed down or stopped. It would be great for her to expand her audience somehow. The whole night, I kept thinking how wonderful it would be for a younger performer, either a hip-hop star or an R&B star, to just hire her as an opener, and take Millie around the country to perform for their younger demographic, so more people can see what this original can still do.