Live Review | The Maze, Nottingham | Review by Allan Wilkinson
I approached the north side of Nottingham just as dusk approached in the last remaining hours of September. The roads were grid-locked, apparently due to the 700 year-old annual Goose Fair, where thousands descend on the old city for some seasonal fun at one of the largest travelling fairgrounds in the country, provided for by travelling folk. I had an appointment with another traveller of a different sort and was beginning to become concerned that if the roads didn’t clear soon, I just might miss that all important window of opportunity to have a chat to one of my musical heroes; so some inevitable steering wheel tapping ensued, together with one or two choice whispered profanities. As I crawled through the slow moving traffic, listening to Hollywood Pocketknife on the car MP3 player, which competed rather unsuccessfully with the pulsating and pumping rhythms of drum and bass from the Ministry of Noise coming from much bigger speakers in much bigger cars, together with the piercing sirens from emergency vehicles, attempting to negotiate the grid-locked chaos more forcefully than any of us, I finally saw the unassuming frontage of The Maze in the distance on the Mansfield Road, with the now customary gathering of smokers outside in the doorway. Grabbing my bag containing some recording equipment, my trusty camera and a notebook containing a few preliminary notes scribbled within its pages, I left the car in a highly suspect back street area and walked briskly towards the venue as night fell upon Nottingham town. James Windsor, one of the towns’ main live music promoters and organiser of tonight’s gig, which comes under the Cosmic American banner, greeted me at the concert room door, moments before the darkened room was opened to the public. “I have an appointment with Eric” I said as I squeezed into the empty bar, the stage of which was already set up with a single mic stand and adjacent accessory and drinks table, with the now customary black backdrop with the words ‘The Maze’ printed in large white letters together with a maze-shaped logo. I was led to the backstage area through a series of passages and doorways, understanding perfectly well now why the venue is called The Maze, and then a final creaky door was opened to reveal an unfamiliar seated figure, who I soon discovered to be one Stuart Warburton, a Bury-born driver, road companion and support singer to the main act tonight. Squeezing into the room behind James, I was soon in the company of the towering figure of the legendary Eric Taylor. We shook hands and in a deep soft growl of a voice, the Atlanta-born songwriter said “nice to meet ya Allan”. Dressed in faded blue denim jeans and a loose fitting black Grandad top, with a pair of reading specs dangling over the button up part just below his chin, a chin now obscured by a cool looking grey goatee – always cool on a man of his generation – and finally a black flat cloth cap turned backwards beret-like, hiding his apparent shock of grey hair beneath, the charismatic singer-songwriter settled back into a creaky chair, matching the creaky door I’d just walked through moments before. The Maze is something of a creaky place, but charming nonetheless. Almost deliberately abandoning my previously scribbled notes, we settled into a conversation about the Eric Taylor story so far. Returning to the concert bar, I took a seat by the stage and was pleasantly surprised that the lighting was perfect for the single photograph I was hoping to take. Red lights are an evil conception, an achingly dull pain for any photographer, let alone someone like me, who just wants to get a decent shot to go with the review, yet most venues use them. Here at The Maze, there were three of four white spots directly above the mic, illuminating the stage perfectly, but not drowning the area with unwanted light. Here’s a venue thinking about the audience as well as the artist. Great sound and great lighting. Stuart Warburton opened with a warm up set, which included songs about emotional battlefields, domestic violence and a fragile heaven, together with an enchanting song set in the disturbing world of unsolved crimes in Mexican border towns, especially in relation to the astonishing amount of murders involving young women. A good selection of self-penned songs from the voice of Rockabilly outfit The Rhythmaires, which served to do exactly what it said on the box, settle the audience for what was to follow. After a short break and some last minute seat shuffling, the background music faded to allow our attention to fall upon the stage, which was now occupied by a tall brooding figure, peeking out at the audience from beneath his hand, which stretched out above his brow, with squinting eyes in search of familiar faces and old friends. One such friend handed Taylor a glass of whiskey, which joined the bottle of water, the glass of red wine and whatever was in the green tea cup that Taylor had brought up on stage with him. The singer was suitably set up for a relaxed hour or so of songs and stories and at this point, even he hadn’t decided whether we were going to have a break half way through or a straight run through performance. With some delicate guitar chords, finger-picked to no apparent rhythm, a gentle Texan drawl set the mood for “Carnival Jim and Jean”, with a spoken introduction telling of carneys, that is, fairground people; ‘little midgets and knife throwers, balloon blowers, tiny dogs with pink dresses, all tryin’ to find their way home’. We were enthralled from the start, knowing full well that we were in the company of a first rate storyteller who knows exactly how to capture the imagination. Eric Taylor isn’t as prolific as his peers and doesn’t have a couple of dozen albums like Tom Russell, nor does he have the enigmatic reputation of his late friend Townes Van Zandt. What he does have though is an astonishing repertoire of intelligently written and highly literate story songs that speak of scared circles, of cold nights on the Plains and fighting the Indians, of Dean Moriarty searching for the father he never knew and of brand new companions, however dirty. “Carnival Jim and Jean” was a good starter with its driving rhythm on guitar and uplifting beat, provided by some rhythmic foot tapping, together with an engaging story of a world we know little about. Speaking of uplifting tunes and how to get the show going, Taylor admits that the show normally takes a nose-dive from there on in, ‘a dive into the canyon’ as they say. He’s not the only songwriter with a reputation for sad songs. In his introduction to his late friend Townes Van Zandt’s song “Highway Kind”, Taylor recalls an incident in the Old Quarter when a woman shouts up from the audience, “Hey Townes, won’t you just play a happy song, just for me?” Townes reportedly responded by saying “these are the happy songs; you don’t wanna hear the sad ones”. “We’ve always been afraid of people” said Taylor, as he re-tuned his guitar, “and people were afraid of Crazy Horse”, hence the celebration when they finally killed the old chief off. “Deadwood” handles such historical material with a sensitivity devoid of any trace of sentimentality. It’s been over twelve years since the writer of this song has actually performed it live, a song which he insists is called just “Deadwood” and not “Deadwood, South Dakota” as his erstwhile spouse Nanci Griffith referred to it on her album One Fair Summer Evening in 1988, explaining that at the time the song was set, there was no State of South Dakota. The singer confessed that he may be a little rusty, but he went on to play the song brilliantly well and what’s more; he played the song specifically for me, without me having actually asked him to. A nice intuitive touch I thought. Half way through the set, Eric checked with James and with the approval of the audience, it was unanimously decided upon that there would be no break. It would be a shame to lose the atmosphere thus far created and Taylor continued with more of the same, more stories, more songs. The second half of the set saw the songwriter revisiting some of the songs from his previous albums “Manhattan Mandolin Blues”, “Big Love” and “Ain’t But One Thing Give a Man the Blues” from The Great Divide (2005) and “Dean Moriarty” and “Hemmingway’s Shotgun” from the self-titled Eric Taylor (1995), still criminally hard to get hold of over here, or probably anywhere for that matter. Earlier in the set “Two Fires” from his classic Resurrect album was given an airing as was the raunchy “Brand New Companion” with its highly sexually charged ‘Dirty Dirty’ boogie originally recorded for his The Great Divide album. An evening with Eric Taylor is more than just a gig, more than a singer-songwriter playing a handful of great songs, songs we have become so familiar with over the years. An evening with Eric Taylor is an emotive experience, a little glimpse into a world of carnivals and Kerouac, highways and Hemmingway, bar rooms and Birdland. A world where even Louis Armstrong has a broken heart. A worthwhile experience for everybody I would say.