Georgia-tinged Texas soul from Eric Taylor
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 25, 2004) -- Texas has bred many fine singer-songwriters, including Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, and Nanci Griffith. But one of the most influential of the Texas singer-songwriters – the one who came out of the same scene and to whom many of the others pay tribute – wasn’t even from Texas originally.
Eric Taylor was born and raised in Atlanta, and if you listen closely you can hear it in his music. While recent albums like “The Kerrville Tapes” and “Scuffletown” bear the unmistakably commanding, authoritative, Texas sound familiar to fans of Clark, Van Zandt and Keen, Taylor’s music is colored with ready-made blues and soul, the influence of the rich black culture he grew up around.
Taylor, who performs on Saturday night at the Railway Café at St. John's Parish Hall in North Adams, wound up in Houston on his way to California after dropping out of Georgetown University. He fell in with a burgeoning musical scene and picked up intricate blues guitar stylings from legends like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Mississippi Fred McDowell while working at the Family Hand club.
By 1977, Taylor had won the “New Folk” competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival. But while peers like Lovett and Griffith went on to sing Taylor’s songs on their path to fame and fortune, Taylor wallowed in semi-obscurity until the mid-1990s. His eponymous 1995 album was chosen as the 1996 Kerrville Folk Festival Album of the Year, and three years later, the aptly-titled “Resurrect” was named one of the “100 essential records of all time” by Buddy magazine. Since then, Taylor has headlined the prestigious Newport Folk Festival, played National Public Radio’s “Mountain Stage,” and has appeared on both “Late Night with David Letterman” with Nanci Griffith and “Austin City Limits” with Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark, and Robert Earl Keen.
While the Grammy Award-winning Blind Boys of Alabama are undoubtedly the main attraction at Friday night’s concert at the First United Methodist Church, at 55 Fenn St., in Pittsfield, concertgoers won’t want to overlook the gospel-flavored opening act. The members of Ollabelle, all in their 20s, originally got together at a Sunday night gospel jam in the unlikely setting of an East Village bar. The sextet, which just released its eponymous debut on T-Bone Burnett’s DMZ label, an imprint of Columbia Records, is an egalitarian democracy, with members sharing songwriting, singing and instrumental duties.
The songs on “Ollabelle” include traditional gospel numbers such as “Jesus on the Mainline,” the Mahalia Jackson-inspired “Elijah Rock,” the Staples Singers’ “I’m Willing to Run All the Way,” several original songs, a contemporary gospel song by Andrae Crouch and a cover of “I Am Waiting” by the Rolling Stones. Among the group’s members are singer Amy Helm, daughter of drummer/singer Levon Helm of The Band. Ollabelle’s organic, guitar- and keyboard-drenched sound, which filters gospel through a blend of jazz, folk, soul and blues, owes more than a little to that legendary group’s similar approach to American roots music. Papa Helm even lends his drums to a haunting version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man.”
Not since Jimi Hendrix distorted the “Star Spangled Banner” at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 has our national anthem been given such an edgy, provocative treatment as the one that kicks off cellist Matt Haimovitz’s new, aptly-titled CD, “Anthem” (Oxingale/Artemis Classics). Having in past years succeeded in bringing Bach’s cello suites to alternative venues like folk and rock clubs – including New York’s punk-rock headquarters, CBGBs, where he recorded the national anthem -- Haimovitz, who performs at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington next Thursday, April 1, at 8, tries something different this time out on his “Anthem” CD and tour: a program of contemporary works for solo cello by American composers including Lou Harrison, Osvaldo Golijov, Robert Stern, Tod Machover and Toby Twining. Several of the pieces were commissioned specially by Haimovitz – an Israeli native who now calls the Pioneer Valley home -- for the album in response to the events of 9/11, including the jazz-influenced “Seventh Avenue Kaddish” by David Sanford and “9:11 Blues” by Toby Twining.
You can usually find Paul Shapiro playing tenor saxophone for artists including Lou Reed, Michael Jackson, Queen Latifah, Ben Folds Five and Mariah Carey, when he is not performing with one of his experimental jazz and r&b groups like the Microscopic Septet or the Brooklyn Funk Essentials. But Shapiro’s latest solo project, “Midnight Minyan” (Tzadik), may be the one closest to his soul. On the album, Shapiro approaches the traditional melodies of his Jewish upbringing in much the same way he plays blues and standards – with the rhythmic and improvisational sensibilities of a jazzman. What’s surprising is how organic the music sounds, as if it were always meant to be played this way. Shapiro swings the Jewish classics with his group, Midnight Minyan, at Page Hall at the University at Albany on Sunday, March 28, at 4.
[Railway Café 664-6393; Blind Boys at First United Methodist Church and Club Helsinki, 528-3394; Paul Shapiro at Page Hall, 518-489-8573]
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 26, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]
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