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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 71.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Keeping it real
Rapper Pigeon John conveys a weird kind of authenticity
Pigeon John plays the excitable nerd.
Pigeon John plays the excitable nerd.

Pigeon John
Friday, March 9, High Noon Saloon, 10 pm

Before he was old enough to attend kindergarten, Pigeon John remembers watching his mother spread out a bed sheet to use as a makeshift family suitcase.

It happened more than once. Without explanation, she told her children to put their things in the middle of it and get ready to go.

'It got to the point where we didn't ask any questions,' Pigeon John said in a recent phone interview. 'We already knew what it meant.'

It meant Mom was leaving behind a boyfriend or skipping out on the rent. It meant finding a new home on a transient trail between Nebraska and Colorado, a trail that Pigeon John says his family traveled every few months for a few years.

But those dark memories aren't what inspire the music of this 29-year-old indie rapper from L.A., who performs this Friday at the High Noon Saloon.

His signature track, 'Do the Pigeon,' from 2006's Pigeon John & the Summertime Pool Party is instead sublime, joyous and full of faith. The last line of the chorus sums up the sentiment: 'I know it gets tough, but you gotta let the sunshine in just a smidgen.'

There's an everyday authenticity to Pigeon John & the Summertime Pool Party that's disarmingly atypical of commercial hip-hop. The clichÃs of money, women and gangsta life are replaced by three-dimensional characters who find good times at Taco Bell, humor in lost jobs and comfort in arguing with Jesus.

Pigeon John says his close relationship with his siblings during a nomadic childhood helped spark his originality.

'We were tight because we were outsiders everywhere we went,' he says. 'We finally settled in Inglewood, California, by the time I started school. When we got there, we were seen as three half-white kids from the Midwest. I had to be myself because there were no other options.'

Religious faith also helped form his original perspective.

'When I was 15 a friend invited me to church, and that's when I first became a Christian. After that I saw what I am as a creation.'

But Pigeon John doesn't sermonize. He draws listeners into his nonconformist world by playing the part of an excitable nerd who doesn't fit the mold of his tough-guy friends.

'Yes, yes, I'm going to see Pigeon John, babies!' squeals a teenage boy in a high-pitched voice on the track 'I Thought You Was a G?'

'What kind of motherfucking rapper is named Pigeon John?' an older brother scowls back on the same track. 'What the fuck is wrong with you? I thought you was from Inglewood.'

Then Jesus arrives at Pigeon John's summertime pool party on the remarkable track 'As We Know It.' He's met with an anguished cross-examination: 'Why the holocaust, why the slavery, why the crusades in the name of bravery?'

His wordless response is a window on Pigeon John's faith: 'Without an answer you stretch out your hand/ With a look in your eyes that you understand.'

'We all come up to that wall,' says Pigeon John. 'And I believe that all art comes from that one place ' that questioning.'

In his high school years, Pigeon John's family moved again, to Hawthorne, Calif., a place that's famous for being the hometown of the Beach Boys.

'It's one part beach city, one part 'hood,' says Pigeon John. He credits the strong melodies of Summertime Pool Party with the pop influences he absorbed in Hawthorne.

Signed to the independent Quannum label, Pigeon John says he holds no ambition to join with a major right now.

'I met with EMI, and they told me they were looking for the next Nelly,' he says. 'I just couldn't see myself putting on a jersey and playing that part. Nothing against Nelly, but that kind of thing doesn't represent hip-hop or, for that matter, African Americans very well. When we look back on that stuff someday, it's all going to seem very weird. Our kids are going to ask us, 'What were you doing looking like that, wearing gold teeth?'

'What are we going to say, 'Oh, I was doing that for money'?'

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