[29 January 2008]
When music and musicians dare tread closely to the higher purposes of the art form, there is a connectedness that often occurs and is observable. Whether that connection comes between artist and fellow artist, artist and audience, or artist and some sort of ideal depends on a variety of factors. When a song or album can achieve all three points of connection, something truly special has happened.
This document of Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez’s October 11 and 13, 2005 performances at the German Ruhr Triennale festival provides a look at just such a special moment. The 14 tracks included on this project reveal a wonderful musical bond between Taylor and Rodriguez and also serve as a tribute, almost a paean to the spirit of early rock, folk, and country music. By realizing these points of connection, the pair makes the experience a delightful one for the listener, thus completing the aforementioned trifecta.
Taylor and Rodriguez’s musical kinship is one in which, yes, the sum may be greater than its parts, but the parts themselves are pretty great. Taylor, the younger brother of actor Jon Voight, is a veteran songwriter/recording artist whose best known compositions (“Wild Thing”, “Angel of the Morning”) are enduring classics, while Rodriguez is an outstanding vocalist, violinist, and songwriter in her own right, having recorded the 2006 solo project Seven Angels on a Bicycle and appearing on projects by Patty Griffin and John Mayer.
According to their record label bio, Taylor, struck by Rodriguez’s performance at South by Southwest in 2001, asked her to play a few dates with him and “the rest is history”. Together, the duo creates beautiful music through both the force of and nuance in their vocal harmonies. A stirring blend of world-weariness, heartbreak, warmth, and understanding, the pair’s vocals evoke feelings on all ends of the emotional spectrum. In the album’s liner notes, Taylor writes, “My entire music career has been guided by physical sensations. For the last several years I have been so fortunate to feel those sparks every time Carrie and I are on stage and our voices come together in a certain magical way.” Taylor says “that ‘chill-factor’ was never more in evidence” than on the nights captured on this disc.
Of all their many performances, this one came about as the result of what the album’s press materials rightly call “special circumstances.” The Century of Song series was established as a part of the Ruhr Triennale, allowing artists to perform and, according to liner notes, “celebrate the history of popular song as it arose in the 20th century… artists are asked to feature their own songs as well as their favorites from the past century.” With this purpose in mind, the offerings from Taylor and Rodriguez certainly are a celebration of and reflection on the course of rock history. These are not high-minded songs, these are tracks like Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again”, but they point back to the spiritual center of rock and roll. Taylor and Rodriguez prove to be just the artists needed to call such a trajectory to mind.
The performance begins, fittingly, with Taylor’s “The Real Thing”, a song which references the greatness of pioneers like Presley, Cash, Lewis, and Perkins, and makes a clear statement that you know great rock and roll when you hear it, when it dwells in your bones.
…I found out the stuff they were playin’ us wasn’t made from grits and bone
And it would take more than the Crew Cuts and Pat Boone to take me home
‘Cause I want the real thing…”
The pair tackles some of the classics of the popular music canon with an appropriate mix of reverence and aplomb; the aforementioned “Maybellene” is introduced with brief remarks by Taylor who calls the track “probably more influential” than any of Berry’s other big hits. The duo and their seasoned, proficient backing band (featuring Bill Frisell, who curated this installment of the concert series) give the song a wonderful country shuffle, full of swagger and motion. Johnny Cash’s “Big River” suits Taylor’s vocals well, and the riffing from Rodriguez on fiddle and Frisell on guitar inject color into this version of the song. As an aside, one particularly great instrumental moment on an album full of them is the brief bass/drum break executed with David Piltch and Kenny Wollesen on “Laredo”; just a cool section of the song for those who appreciate an old-time rock and roll flair.
While Taylor and Rodriguez treat these upbeat tunes well, the pair is at their best when performing ballads with soul and sensitivity. Taylor’s “Let’s Leave This Town”, found early in the sequence of songs, is a tender gem, while a take on the standard “Long Black Veil” draws the drama and darkness of the song out subtly and slowly, without being overpowering or overdramatic.
And then there’s “Angel of the Morning”. The song has been recorded by a host of artists with varying degrees of success and quality (from classic renditions by Merrilee Rush and Juice Newton, to the Pretenders’ less heralded but equally solid take, to Shaggy’s not quite so classic “Angel” reinterpretation). Yet, this may be one of the definitive versions. Taylor and Rodriguez bring out every ounce of innocence and regret in the song’s lyrics, their back and forth vocals framing the song with more perspective than any solo version has. The beauty of Taylor’s melody is only enhanced and accentuated all the more by the beauty of the duo’s harmonies; this is the kind of track that listeners will hit the repeat button for a couple of times before moving on.
But move on you should, as the album’s closer is a delightful, bluesy version of “Wild Thing” that showcases the band’s abilities and comes complete with a terrific guitar solo from guest Buddy Miller.
This project is the reason live albums were made: to emphasize connections, to show how new creative brushstrokes affect timeless material, and to give both casual and devoted fans of the artist a reference point for what makes the artists excel. Taylor and Rodriguez should be proud of this album.