Friday, April 25th 2014
My mom took my brothers and me to a few church concerts as kids, but the first genuine rock show I remember seeing by choice was Rez Band in October of 1983. While the Chicago rockers were an expected revelation to my ears and eyes, the opening act caught me completely off guard. Steve Taylor had just released his debut EP, I Want To Be A Clone. Through his short set I was electrified by his wit, his band’s musical chops, and the concept that people of faith could – maybe should – use humor and satire as part of our creative palette. Taylor challenged every Christian cliché he came across – many of which I was too young to have faced personally. I was thirteen years old the night Steve Taylor first entered my consciousness and became a role model for me. Last night, nearly thirty years later, he did it again.
Taylor hasn’t released a studio album since 1993’s masterpiece, Squint. He re-invented The Newsboys, co-writing many of their biggest songs with that band’s Peter Furler and producing a string of hit albums for them over more than a dozen years. He has placed individual songs on soundtracks and compilations, but by 1996 or so Taylor had transitioned into a music business role as the head of a Warner Brothers label imprint also called Squint. In that role he introduced the world to the music of Burlap to Cashmere and Chevelle and released the self-titled, multi-platinum album by Sixpence None The Richer that changed the way the mainstream thought of Christians in music. That band’s song “Kiss Me,” produced by Taylor, became the most played song on worldwide radio that year. Taylor’s foray as an A&R executive was impactful, inspiring, and very short-lived. At the turn of the century he returned to his first original career plan; making films. Though he had filmed several excellent videos over the years, his third chapter would see him release several acclaimed feature-length films, including the 2012 sleeper Blue Like Jazz.
In 2003 I was working full-time at the Cornerstone Festival and was honored to help plan a celebratory main stage event to commemorate that event’s 20th gathering. John Herrin, the festival director and former Rez Band drummer, and I begged and pleaded with Taylor to come out of his self-imposed musical exile for one special show. I remember Taylor telling me then about how serious he was about making films and that he needed the business to believe him when he said that music was behind him. Somehow, however, Herrin convinced him to make an appearance. Taylor headlined a night of concerts and filmed memories with a set that was stripped down, relevant, tight, and muscular. Although I was the MC that night, and tried to act professional, I couldn’t hide my enthusiasm. I moved around front to watch Steve Taylor do his thing. It was like I was 13 all over again. It’s hard to believe that was ten years ago.
Taylor has been quietly and sporadically working on new music for several years with a core band that includes Furler on drums, John Mark Painter (Fleming and John) on bass and various horns, and guitarist Jimmy Abegg (Charlie Peacock Group, Vector, The Ragamuffin Band, etc) as co-conspirators. They snuck a song onto Furler’s debut solo record a couple years back and parked one on the soundtrack to Blue Like Jazz, but last year they got serious about finishing the record. They launched a Kickstarter campaign (which fans of Taylor’s Blue Like Jazz has used to help fund and rescue that film from oblivion a couple years earlier) late last year with a goal of $40,000 they needed to finish and release the album by the band dubbed Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil. That campaign over-delivered in a big way when nearly 2500 fans ponied up over $120,000 – over 300% of their goal. Moved by the response the band added a tour to the mix and offered fans a chance to bring them to their town, or to come see the band play a “secret show” in Nashville. Last night’s concert at The Rutledge was that secret show and a house full of fans that came in from all over the country were treated to the night of their lives.
The show was opened by Fleming and John, a critically acclaimed progressive / alternative pop band that Taylor had supported since their inception at Belmont College in the late 80s. Vocalist Fleming McWilliams, who admitted to the audience that they had played only 2 shows in the last 14 years, was absolutely spot-on. Her continuing work as a vocal instructor has kept her voice in impeccable shape and Painter’s ongoing work as a producer and studio musician has protected his chops as well. With McWilliams’ brother on drums the trio played through favorites from their two LPs and unveiled one new song. An emotional highlight came when McWilliams choked up as she attempted to thank Taylor not only for the opportunity to play, but also for decades of friendship, support, and inspiration. Sure, Taylor had been a personal friend of theirs for years – she even choked back tears while talking about he and his wife having been at their wedding in 1991, but familiarity did nothing to diminish their appreciation for his work. The Painters, it appears, also chose their role models wisely. Still married all these years later, and raising two kids, they have defied the gravity that tears apart so many relationships in this town. After performing a fantastic version of “Love Songs”, a tune that should be one of the most popular ballads of all time, Fleming and John then tore the place down with a rousing rendition of “A Place Called Love” before making room for a visibly impressed Taylor to take the stage.
I’ll admit that I was having too much fun during Taylor’s set to write down every song. The set was a perfect blend of songs from the still forthcoming new LP as well as favorites that reached back all the way to his earliest records. The new material sounds exactly as fresh, relevant, and Taylor-esque as I or any other fans could hope. Unlike many comebacks, however, the band actually sounded best on the new stuff. Elements of Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, and other recent alt-pop acts were in the air, while the underlying songs contained all the cleverness we expect from Taylor. It’s clear – from both the material and the band name – that Taylor is leaning hard into the considerable skills, experience, and spirit of his band-mates here. Even the classics sounded impossibly current when played by this group.
For the first encore Taylor came out wearing the original On The Fritz suit from 1985 and played a stone-cold serious version of “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé. He then tore into the punked out version of “On The Fritz” that fans remember from the Liver record in ’95. For his second encore he brought out former Chagall Guevara member, and producer, Dave Perkins who lead the band on a romp through Van Morrison’s “GLORIA.”
One highlight among many for me was “Hero,” a song that first appeared on Taylor’s 1984 album Meltdown and has long been one of my favorites. The packed and thrilled house sang along with every word as Taylor re-visited that little boy hiding under a blanket with a comic book and a flashlight dreaming of being a hero.
“Growing older you’ll find that illusions are bought and the idol you thought you’d be is just another zero. I want to be a hero.”
Mission accomplished. Last night, seeing Taylor there with his wife and decades worth of friends, and knowing about how he and Deb adopted their amazing daughter years ago from an orphanage in Africa, and thinking back over an amazing and ongoing career that has had so many important chapters it came to me again that, while we have to be careful who we turn into heroes, some people are up to the job. Thirty years later and Steve Taylor hasn’t lost a beat. Last night we crazy fans knew that we had chosen our hero wisely when we became Steve Taylor fans. After the show Taylor, with the help of designated tour guide and pre-cleared busker Don Chaffer of Waterdeep, took the audience on a walking tour of downtown Nashville, culminating with cookies and milk on the pedestrian bridge over the Cumberland.
And with that we all experienced yet one more night with Steve Taylor that we will never forget.
Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil take off for their tour tomorrow! If you are able to get to a show, you must. You will thank me and I will say “why, you’re welcome.” TOUR DATES: http://www.songkick.com/artists/7643024-steve-taylor-and-the-perfect-foil
Thanks to Andy Peterson for sharing his Abegg-autographed set-list from the show!