The High Noon Saloon welcomed slam poet and storyteller Neil Hilborn back to Madison for a late Monday show. With local entertainer Kevin Willmott II opening, the two described how love, injustice, mental illness and mortality affect our everyday lives and interactions.
The High Noon Saloon is a honkytonk-style bar located a few blocks behind the Capitol. With two floors of seating and a large wooden stage, the venue has entertained audiences with talented musicians, poets and other artists since 2004. The chalkboard menus over the bar and array of string lights invoke a rustic festival vibe that has won countless awards in the past decade.
The first act of the night was Kevin Willmott II, a member of Don’t Mess With Cupid, a popular local band, and the son of famous screenwriter Kevin Willmott (Blackkklansman, 2018).
Willmott told stories about humorous encounters at bars he has worked at and the modern racism he’s experienced on the job.
Willmott has lived in Madison for eight years. He draws inspiration from his childhood in Kansas and from his favorite poet, Gil Scott-Heron. Growing up, Willmott wrote poems and lyrics with his friends, which eventually turned into a career and lifelong interest.
Soon after, Neil Hilborn took the stage with a grace that only he could exude.
A College National Poetry champion, Hilborn is the co-founder of Macalester College’s literary magazine Thistle and has competed with several college, state and national poetry slam teams.
Hilborn’s career picked up when his poem “OCD” from the Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam went viral on YouTube, which tells the story of a relationship where one partner struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
The video was actually filmed in the Red Gym on the University of Wisconsin campus, and Hilborn has a special place for Madison in his heart. He enjoyed revisiting the place where his dream became a beautiful reality.
His set included a number of his poems. In between each, he would tell stories or jokes, providing commentary to his own performance.
With each poem he read, he gave both beautiful and comedic explanations, and the large crowd in attendance ate it up. He talked about both past and current relationships, like his childhood in Texas and his current life in St. Paul, Minnesota.
With each poem, he layered in comments about mental health and mortality, acknowledging each and talking about his experiences with the heavy topics. By providing these breaks to “get personal” with the audience, he created a welcoming environment for all people and emotions.
The audience laughed and cried alongside the poet, participating in the magic and movement that is poetry.
That night, Willmott mentioned Gil Scott-Heron’s song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and how it applies to our everyday life. As Heron states, the larger revolution will not be televised because it has no beginning and end — because we are the revolution, and the stories we tell are the catalyst for positive and meaningful change.
Hilborn explored a similar theme in his performance, and how he lives his overall life. With poems like “The Future,” “Dear Creationists,” “A Place Where Someone Loves You,” and (my favorite) “I Don’t Need to Have a Better Day, I Need to Feel Better About This One,” he illustrates how revolution can and needs to happen both personally as well as globally.
That night, both poets proved that revolution isn’t famous, chronological, or even quantitative. The revolution they discussed is happening all around us — in how we wake up and choose to live every day.
Before Hilborn leaves Madison, he’ll make one more stop to a place that sparked his own revolution.
“Every time I’m in Madison, I always try to roll by the Red Gym and say thanks,” Hilborn said.