Saturday, March 17, 2012

Eric Taylor – Live at the Red Shack

Live at the Red Shack
Blue Ruby Music & Records

Back in the 1980s, Nanci Griffith was a regular performer at the Golem, the Montreal folk club I was running in those days. Like many of the artists who played the Golem, Nanci stayed with me and we’d often sit up, late at night, talking about music, musicians, singers, songs and songwriters. One of the people she told me about was her ex-husband, a great songwriter, troubled in those days, named Eric Taylor. I’d had a bit of an introduction to Eric via his song, “Dollar Matinee,” which he performed with Nanci on her first LP, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods.

Eric grew up in Georgia and arrived on the Texas folk scene in the early-1970s. Following in the footsteps of songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, he was one of the best of the next wave of singer-songwriters in a scene known for its great writers. Eric released his first LP, Shameless Love, in 1981, and then pretty much disappeared for more than a decade.

I was doing the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show when Eric re-emerged in the mid-1990s with the eponymously named Eric Taylor, a CD which re-established Eric’s place in the front ranks of contemporary folk-based singer-songwriters. That album, and a series of excellent releases that followed, were staples on the radio show for its entire run.

For Live at the Red Shack, Eric took some songs from his extensive back catalogue – including a couple that have only been available on Nanci Griffith or Lyle Lovett albums and another that was (so far as I know) previously unrecorded – into the Red Shack, a Houston recording studio, and performed them live to a small audience of invited guests. Backing Eric throughout the album are Marco Python Fecchio, an excellent, atmospheric electric guitarist and James Gilmer, a very tasteful percussionist. Nanci, Lyle, Denice Franke and Susan Lindfors Taylor provide duet and/or harmony vocals to some of the songs.

Something I’ve always loved about Eric’s work is that he’s not a navel-obsessed songwriter. Many of his songs are from the perspective of a character completely, or at least seemingly, outside of himself. In one song, he’s a guy from Indiana who just happened to be a tourist in the crowd when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. In another, he’s a guy in a saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota when news about the death of Crazy Horse comes through in 1877. And, in yet another, he’s a character in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road talking about Dean Moriarty. And in all of these settings, and others, he seems to be singing with complete honesty and authenticity.

Without question, these are all great versions of great songs, but I’ll call attention to a few of my favorite tracks.

One is certainly the afore mentioned “Dean Moriarty,” doubled in length by a spoken word into that sounds like it could have been written by Kerouac back in the day. Another is “Mission Door,” with chorus harmony from Nanci, a beautifully constructed portrait of skid row life. And yet another is a gorgeous duet with Denice Franke on “Blue Piano,” which captures a scene from many years ago of Bonnie Brown playing the painted-blue piano at Anderson Fair, a legendary Houston music club.

It was also great to hear Eric and Nanci reprising their version of “Dollar Matinee,” first recorded on Nanci’s debut album in 1978, and to hear Eric and Lyle team up on “Memphis Midnight, Memphis Morning,” an Eric Taylor song Lyle recorded on Step Inside This House, an album he made in tribute to influential Texas songwriters.

If you appreciate great singer-songwriters, you should be listening to Eric Taylor.

--Mike Regenstreif

1 comment:

  1. I'm only marginally familiar with Taylor's work, mostly from the occasional Lyle Lovett cover of same. In the song you mention about Deadwood ca. 1877, however, I hope he knows better than to identify the town as in "South Dakota." It wasn't.

    In fact, there was no South Dakota then. What is now South Dakota was then part of the larger Dakota Territory. Towns within its boundaries -- incorporating the present-day North Dakota and South Dakota -- were said to be in "Dakota."

    The two Dakotas entered the union as separate political entities (i.e., states) in December 1889.