17 May 2012: Hill Country Live New York
Delicious BBQ in a live music venue? In the heart of New York? Now I’ve seen everything! It had recently come to my attention that Hill Country Barbeque (and its sister D.C. location) have begun sharing their space with a live music venue, dubbed ‘Hill Country Live’. Most of the week the venue invites bands whose music is worthy of a Texas saloon to perform and give the audience an auditory and visual treat while they eat—occasionally, the acts are notable enough to warrant ticketing to attend. One noticeable difference between a saloon and the Hill Country Live space was that, at least in New York, there is no dance floor area; patrons won’t be able to stomp along with the band if they wanted to. This conflict was apparent in the audience at least a few times when Chip Taylor & The New Ukrainians performed on the New York HC Live stage on May 17th.
Chip Taylor, born James Wesley Voight, is a singer / songwriter with over a dozen albums spanning his forty year career. Pretty amazing for a name I had never heard of before but then again, there is a lot I don’t know (I’ll let you connect the dots with the Voight name). His backing band, The New Ukrainians, on their first US outing together, includes an old friend, John Platania on lead guitar, Björn Pettersson on bass, a drummer and a keyboardist.
Taylor described his music writing as a form of therapy. As such, his songs are frequently literal retellings of specific moments of his life. Throughout the night, he gave introductions to many of his stories. When he related the background on “Too Dynamic”, I was chuckling. Apparently, a music critic had called the band’s performance “too dynamic” in one of his reviews, which seems like an odd phrase. I think The New Ukrainians had the right mix of dynamics. “Too Dynamic” was self-referential, Taylor sang lines like “He started out slowly / and he built to a crescendo” and “He started out whispering / then he went to hollering”, which the band graciously demonstrated, blowing a lyrical raspberry at the reviewer. There were softer numbers, like “Me and Rohillio” and “Passport Blues” off the band’s new album F**k all the Perfect People, mixed in with more outright rock tunes, including a rousing cover of Johnny Cash’s “Big River”.
The highlight of his set was without a doubt “Angel of the Morning”. As I had done no research on him, I was totally unaware that he had written this classic. His stunning version sounded warmer and better than any other I’ve heard, partly because of the live setting and otherwise because it sounded more touching from a male performer. The New Ukrainians helped him with backing vocals and the audience initially applauded when the song began but sat still otherwise as all was revealed to them.
Taylor followed this up with a story of meeting a man, Jimmy James, who looked out of place walking around Taylor’s office. James eventually began to cover Taylor’s song “Wild Thing” (made famous by The Troggs) at the end of sets, and then ended up changing his stage name to Jimi Hendrix. Here in the hands of the Ukrainians, the song was an impressive rocker that challenged the audience to remain in their seats. But when the bigger hits come out, you know it’s close to the end of the night. Stories were doled out in good portions over the seventy-five-minute or so set, but it gave the audience a chance to chow down.
Describing himself as “not a sophisticated writer,” Taylor gave the audience a treat with his new unambiguous songs and some golden nuggets from decades ago. Watching the band, I sometimes saw Pettersson with a knowing smile on his face, or at least that’s what I thought, but it was later confirmed when he and the drummer shared a look. It was one that interpreted as “we’ve heard these stories, we know where they are going and know more than is let on, and we enjoy playing them.” I’m putting a lot into just one look, but being on the road with Taylor is likely full of unanticipated merriment. He’s open, genuine and friendly (he talked to a lot of friends and fans after the show). And with the New Ukrainians, he’s got a down-home band that brings the campfire to you.