Live Review | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | Review by Allan Wilkinson
An evening with singer-songwriter Eric Taylor offers much more than a handful of songs and a joke or two in between. Part songs, part theatrical performance, an Eric Taylor show has the potential to take you places you only ever dreamed of going, if you allow yourself to become lost in the vast American landscape that is, a landscape inhabited by carnival folk, Kerouac characters and Native American legends. As Jack Kerouac and the other ‘Beats’ of the 1950s took us on wild zigzagging car journeys across America through their poetry and prose, Taylor does something similar with his stream of consciousness performances, something that likewise enables you to forget where you are momentarily. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, later finding his spiritual home in Houston, Texas, Eric Taylor has subsequently become known as one of the key players in the Texas songwriter’s circle that includes such notable figures as the late Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. Married to Griffith at a pivotal time in country music that saw a cluster of new emerging singer-songwriters in the early 1980s, Taylor always felt more comfortable writing than performing and has subsequently gone on to find his niche as a fine storyteller, playwright and poet who is known to embellish his rich repertoire of memorable songs with an informative yet laid back narrative. With his beret-covered head just dodging the rafters of the Wheelhouse tonight, the tall guitar player performed a selection of songs from his own impressive songbook, starting with “Carnival Jim and Jean”, immediately drawing his audience into a fascinating world of characters from the outskirts of town; the carnival people, midgets and knife throwers, cotton-candy makers and carnival dogs all driving Buicks. For those along for the ride, it was going to be a thrill; for those not entirely on board, it was going to be presumably a long ride. Paying homage to his friend Townes Van Zandt, Taylor prefaced “Highway Kind” with a highly probably tale, recalling the time in Houston’s Old Quarter, when Townes was asked to play a happy song amidst all the depressing stuff, to which the legendary songwriter allegedly responded, “these are the happy songs, you don’t wanna hear the sad ones”. These stories are told with complete conviction, in an almost theatrical manner. Weaving intriguing tales such as buying trinkets from Johnny Cash’s mother to meeting notable sub-culture literary figures including Naked Lunch author William Burroughs, the poet Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac’s daughter Jan, author of Baby Driver, Taylor keeps your interest throughout. Whether any of its true or not is unimportant; it’s the escapism that holds your attention, yet I suspect most of it is indeed true. Referring to his eponymous titled album as ‘the old ‘95 record’, one of which was brought along to be signed by the singer tonight, Taylor retraced the steps of Kerouac’s anti-hero in that album’s opening song Dean Moriarty, indicating once again the enormous influence of On The Road on our key songwriters over the last five decades. Likewise, Taylor thinks himself privileged to have been given the chance to travel between New York City and Texas, working with the likes of Dave Van Ronk, Eric Von Schmidt and Jean Richie; although he confesses that it came at a price, with heroin also becoming a huge part of his life. “Whorehouse Mirrors” and “Pawnshop Knives”, “Manhattan Mandolin” and “Prison Movie” all stand testament to a life lived, each imbued with candid honesty. As a survivor of recent heart surgery, Taylor returns to form once again with an insatiable appitite for travelling and performing, possibly against good advice. In an almost cathartic performance, which touched on confessionals surrounding heroin addiction together with hints towards alcoholism, a supposed innate suspicion of mandolin players and jokes about Tom Russell, which resulted in nervous giggles from some members of the audience, Taylor’s eventful life was once again put on display for all to bear witness to, interspersed with a handful of honest and enduring songs. Great to see him back.