IN CONCERT: A show of wild and mild things
By JOSEF WOODARD
In the programming agenda of the rightfully lauded “Sings Like Hell” concert series, veteran singer-songwriters and sparkling newcomers are offered the glorious Lobero Theatre stage and a mostly rapt audience. Rarely do both artistic age sets converge in a single package the way they did on Saturday night with the arrival of Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez.
Taylor, a seasoned 60-something songwriter returning to the music scene after years spent in the clutches of a gambling addiction, hooked up with the 20-something Rodriguez after a chance meeting in Austin in 2001. She is a dynamic fiddler, but it turns out she is also an engaging singer who has just released her own debut album, an ear-grabber called “Seven Angels on a Bicycle.”
The pair has released a few albums in recent years and have generated a growing buzz on the folk circuit. They have built considerably more momentum since the last time they played in our neighborhood, at the Live Oak Festival a few years ago. During the course of a strong and varied show at the Lobero, it was easy to understand what the buzz is about.
Humming beneath the gleam of the musical surface were historical and familial connections, such as the fact that Taylor’s early songwriting career in the ’60s yielded such classic songs as “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning,” and that his non de plume disguises the fact that he is Jon Voight’s brother (and Angelina Jolie’s uncle). But he’s not one to need crutches or connections: His music, from early to the recent jewels on his new album, “Unglorious Hallelujah,” does his bidding beautifully.
In the fledgling years of Taylor’s musical career, Chet Atkins was reportedly startled to learn that Taylor, whose solid country songwriting skills Atkins appreciated, was actually from Yonkers, N.Y. The same cognitive dissonance prevails today, making us wonder if Taylor was a Texan in a past or parallel life. He’s got a whole lotta twang going on, in the best way.
Taylor has a relaxed, Willie Nelson-ish way with singing, happy to murmur in the low range, while bolting upward for key notes or lyrics. Rodriguez, meanwhile, has a voice of uncommon loveliness and also power, and she knows how to use it, as heard on her song “Seven Angels on a Bicycle” and the roiling up-tempo number “Never Gonna’ Be Your Bride.” Together they have a fetching rapport, as heard on such Taylor duets as “Let’s Leave This Town” and “Red Dog Tracks.”
Drinking songs — and not necessarily anti-drinking songs for a change — pop up in his songwriter’s head, as well. “Sweet Tequila Blues” and “Must Be the Whiskey” are libation-coated romantic songs. “Big Moonshine” is a story told from the perspective of bottles of booze.
All is not frivolity in Taylor’s world. Political and social themes are finding their way into his newer songs. He cleverly expresses shock over the Iraq war policy of “shock and awe” while drowning sorrows in an airport lounge in “Thursday Night Airport Las Vegas.” He expresses other real-world concerns intelligently, and poetically, in the anti-partisan anthems “Hallelujah Boys” and “I Don’t Believe In That.”
Taylor and Rodriguez — fortified by a solid band, featuring especially inventive drum work by Javier Vercher — ended their official set by revisiting Taylor’s two most famous creations as a songwriter, from the sublime and ridiculous poles of his library. First, he played a slow and burnished version of what is probably his masterpiece and greatest contribution to the world of song, the haunting “Angel of the Morning.”
Next came the party-favor-turned-to-gold hit, “Wild Thing,” replete with audience sing-along and solos all around to extend the classic rock moment. He also told an anecdote about throwing the lyrics together sometime in the afternoon during his days as a staff songwriter, thinking it would be a throwaway item. Fate had it otherwise.
Forty years later, Taylor has rediscovered a solid link with his musical mission, while maintaining a sense of humility and perspective. One of the more lyrical moments of the evening came as the intertwining pearly tones of the singers rolled out the haunting refrain: “In the grand scheme of things, we’re just travelers/neither kings nor queens/we’re just travelers.” They’re travelers with a mission and a highly musical satchel.