LIVE: Kate Taylor @ Caffe Lena, 3/4/16
Review by Don Wilcock
Photographs by Joseph Deuel
I had an inkling that Kate Taylor’s debut at Caffe Lena would be transcendent. The middle child of five very musical siblings, she’s spent a lifetime hanging out with American musical royalty, recording with brother Sweet Baby James and Bob Dylan’s musical director Tony Garnier. Guests on her albums have included Mavis Staples, Linda Ronstadt, Larry Campbell, Tom Hambridge, Chuck Leavell etc., etc. And she’s a most engaging interview on the phone.
On the other hand, she’s had her tragedies and diversions – a husband and brother who died way too young; two daughters she calls her “greatest hits” but who took her out of the music game; and her best known album, Sister Kate, is 45 years old. Plus, her brothers James and Liv are whiter than Wonder Bread; she lived for a while in a teepee; her father was the president of a medical college; and she hasn’t released an album since 2009.
Forget all that stuff. This lady commands a stage in a way that takes your breath away.
Maybe it’s because she’s the middle child that makes Kate Taylor the edgiest sibling in a famous musical family. From her debut album Sister Kate in 1971, she has always had a soulful edge that stood out against her brothers’ folky singer-songwriter repertoire.
For whatever reason, she was breathtakingly transcendent in her sold-out Caffe Lena performance. Blatantly thrilled to be performing in the iconic venue whose heritage goes back to early Dylan, she sang a song and then clapped her hands in a flurry like a woodpecker’s wings in sheer delight at the audience’s favorable response, twice announcing that she wanted to hire a bus to transport the crowd to additional gigs. “I’m absolutely thrilled to be here in this precious and hallowed hall.”
It is often said the measure of a great singer is his or her ability to own a song. Kate Taylor is the reverse of that. Her songs own her, possessing her like a spirit communicating through her. She becomes a medium taking the listener back through her past lives and bringing those events to life through stories and songs – not all hers. And those musical images become defining black-and-white portraits of her 66 years in a most unusual family.
Those images might be as simple as “A Fool in Love,” an Ike and Tina Turner song she loved as a child wearing out their Dynamite album. Or “King of the Pond,” an homage she wrote for a man who harvested scallops near her home in Martha’s Vineyard. Or it might be a song she wrote for Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday, which she admitted was a challenge because Woody “wrote every song.”
The centerpieces of her two sets were the title song of her 2003 album Beautiful Road written by Erica Wheeler, and “Red Tail” from Fair Time, released in 2009. “Beautiful Road” was produced by her husband Charlie Witham who died just as it being finished. When you know the back story, the lyrics become so much more poignant “Red Tail” is an original about her personal sign of the red tail hawk signaling Charlie’s ever present spirit: “I’ve been waiting for your visit/In my dream and it came to be/Heaven’s door would open/And you’d come and visit me.”
Taylor was accompanied by percussionist Sam Zucchini, locally of the Zucchini Brothers, and guitarist Steve Mayone. You would think they were her brothers the way they offered wings that made her vocals fly. An in-demand session guitarist with five solo albums of his own, Mayone played a hollow-bodied Gibson with slide that lifted every song of hers from classic soul to pure folk. Zucchini, likewise, was predictably superb.