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Maria Taylor At Rockwood 2, Saturday, February 11th, 2017, Reviewed

 

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On Saturday night at a sold out Rockwood 2, Maria Taylor performed her first New York concert in three years. We are a layover between LA and Germany for Maria and her two sons, husband and band, and there is a hitch. “Normally this is a piano song,” she explained before she’d even played a note.  Maria pointed to the right of the balcony and a piano way out of reach.  “And I kept telling myself it’d be down and it’s up there… so I just tried to figure this one out on the guitar.” The band launched into the opening track off her superb 2016 album (#7 on my best of), In The Next Life, “Home”. It is yet another beautiful tune by the gifted songwriter and another sentiment like an echo chamber of her life, the story of a trip from LA to the East Coast with her family and, misguidedly, her dog, it has a sense of instant nostalgia:

“And the day is waning
With the music in our brains
It’s in our laughter
Splashing puddles in the rain
And we’re pulling from Biloxi
Jars filled with ocean sand
In pictures torn and faded
We see where it began”

There is an achy melancholia to the song and yet a joyfulness endemic of her last two albums. The searching quiet of her previous songs with both Azure Ray and as a solo artist and member of the Saddle Creek family, gives way to the anchor of happiness. The song is soft and a little sad and it shakes you when the drums kick in. Taylor follows it up with one of her most popular moments, “Song Beneath The Song”, a dark number given a reverberating all string swing by her band. I’ve heard it a million times but on record it feels as though it is electronically fuzzed out and in person it is alt rockism taken on with a stealth strength.

So before two songs are down Taylor has us and she is doing something with us. The drummer, Louis Schefano,  an old friend like everybody in the band, which includes her brother Macey Taylor on bass, and a guest appearance from her husband, Ryan Dwyer,  is more forceful than you’d expect. Louis sets the tone for a lively and inviting set, that does what you’d want it to do: it let’s you hear the songs with fresh ears. Whatever else she may be, Taylor’s gift remains that of a great songwriter, but her melodies are so powerful you can’t help but bypass the structure, now you can’t miss them. The lead guitarist Marko Kurtovic brings out the 50s country pop flavor of “Cartoons And Forever Plans” and  Macey accentuates  the rub-a-dub on “I’m Free”. The penultimate song of the evening finds Ryan shredding all over “Xanax” -a dark moody piece of rock and roll. The evening seems less like a retrospective, Maria has recorded eight albums with Azure Ray alone and there would be way too much material to cover, and more  a setting the record straight as to exactly what type of a songwriter she is: a protean one. Alyson Camus made the same point in her excellent review of Maria at the Troubadour late last year (here), Maria never stays in one place. Her singing is lovely and very disciplined, it is at service to the songs.

The set, less than an hour (with no encore, the only mistake because we were ripe for one, it would have brought the house down round them), and the true excellence, absolute beyond a doubt greatness, was Maria’s presence in time. It is difficult leading a band, it is difficult being centerstage, and it is even harder being good natured yet serious, loquacious yet not intrusive. I hate to keep slamming Caleb Followill, but Kings Of Leon at MSG last month were a mess because Cal didn’t know how to speak to an audience, and Maria was great because she is a master at it. From the conversation intro of the first song, to the smooth segue of the second, she never loses her sense of where she is in the set and yet appears to be feeling her way through it. Even when some schmuck in the audience shouts “HE’S A REPUBLICAN?” as  Ryan reaches the stage. That schmuck would be me. I’d interviewed Maria back in the day and she’d mentioned  her husband was the Chief of Staff for a  Republican congressman, Ryan doesn’t resemble Reince Priebus, he is a better looking iteration of Conor Oberst: straight jet black hair and cool rocker good looks. “No,” he replied. “That was years ago,” Maria added. Then she launched into “Birmingham 1982”, lost her way and said “Iman, you fucked me up.”

Me: “Sorry”

She: “He interviewed me once three years ago. One of my most fun interviews. I’ll never forget you.”

“Nor I, you.”

Here is the interview in question.

I’ve been shouted out before at a concert but usually it is Phoebe Legere screaming for security,  so that was a thrill and a half and still not the evening’s highlight. Neither was the gorgeous, solo evening closer “Pretty Scars” -a limpid Nabokovian self-portrait as a series of love as rebirths. Written for piano, I hope Maria keeps it on guitar from now on. The highlight occurred in the middle, “Up All Night”, about a different form of birth, and “If Only” about a different form of reincarnation. The former is a joyful equivocation of sleep deprivation, the latter a serious contemplation about the cycles of life, and, in an inversion of rock and roll’s greatest traditions, a sad song about a happy thing. “If Only” may stand as one of the best songs Taylor has ever written, a subdued splendid beauty so filled with hope for this life and any others it stands as a testament to absolute optimism. I, myself, am an optimist even though I’ve had a life almost as dramatic as Maria’s, and I respond very well to joy in life. I know how difficult it is to be happy and anyone who makes me happy, I just admire that quality so much. What Maria does is add layers to her happiness, she doesn’t hide in a bubble but personifies the complexities of a good life through her music. Her music places a seed of doubt and mortality in the joy through melodies with an undertow. You are tugged under and out of simple comfort, instead the comfort allows for true emotional complexities.

I’ve waited literally years to see Maria on stage and she failed to disappoint in the slightest, a wonderful set by our most underrated songwriter, she managed to make a fairly major disaster, the lack of a piano, into another cheerful mishap on the road of life. That’s what Maria Taylor can do. That’s why she is one of the greats.

Grade: A

 

 

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