Review: Chip Taylor – The Slaughtered Lamb, London October 5th 2016

Chip Taylor

“How does that next line go, Darius? And remind me, which album’s it on again?”

Despite the underlying implications of both questions (senior moments and faltering memory) the very act of being asked them by a musician for whom I hold unwavering respect nonetheless constitutes one of the greatest honours I’ve ever been awarded in my 20-plus years of doing this so-called ‘job’, let alone the joy of actually hearing him play said request- titled, in case anyone’s interested, I Swear To God Your Honour and originating from his 1972 masterpiece Gasoline.

But that’s what you get when dealing with an artist like Chip Taylor- a pervading sense of informality, non-conformism and direct communication, musician to audience, that most so-called ‘troubadours’ misplaced somewhere in the folds of their own egos decades ago. Here tonight, within the cosy environs of the Slaughtered Lamb (a venue I’ve never visited before, but certainly now intend to at some stage revisit) the concept of the ‘setlist’ exists largely as a guideline only: sure, Chip has several tunes from his excellent new outing Little Brothers lined up to play, and play them he does (one in particular detailing a humorous outing recently enjoyed in hometown NYC with noted siblings Barry and Jon Voight) but he’s not above taking endless streams of requests as long as both he and electric guitarist John Platania can remember how to play them. You sure as damnit don’t get that from Dylan – hell, even Martin Carthy has been seen to blanch at such unabashed participation…

For those unaware, yes you did read that right: Chip (real name James Voight) is the brother of Jon Voight. Moreover, whereas other similar associations ‘twixt musicians and actors have either remained ambiguous (like between Sweet vocalist Brian Connolly and alleged ‘brother’ Mark McManus) or gone unmentioned despite being screamingly obvious to everyone (Larry and Russ Tamblyn) theirs is a brotherhood of which Chip is openly proud: when he repeatedly refers to both Jon and Barry (a respected geologist and the eldest of the three) throughout the show, it’s not to name-drop or curry favour, but simply because they are his family and as far s he’s concerned, their achievements deserve public acknowledgement. Which they do.

Granted, he freely admits that these days, he and Jon exist on quite opposite sides of the political spectrum- but that’s what happens when human beings develop these things called ‘opinions’, and if you’re going to let such vagaries come between you and someone you’ve known all your life, I suggest taking a long cold look in the mirror before working out who it is you really need to be criticising. Furthermore, though like most folk singers, Chip is of the liberal-leaning persuasion, at no point tonight does he preach, hector or thrust his opinions at you. OK, maybe I personally could have done without the slightly-too-hippy-for-comfort strains of new number Refugee Children (which not only jarred with his otherwise lugubrious outlook but bore, with its plaintive melody and massed chorus, an uneasy resemblance to the type of hymnal meanderings enjoyed by my Aunt’s born-again Christian singing group) but I guess out of an entire sheet, one strike is excusable.

Lest we forget, at 76 (though looking more like 64) Chip is in many ways the epitome of the true contrarian- and while that accolade in no way renders him impervious to criticism, it does at least allow more leniency than one might bestow upon other performers. For a start, as show-stopping closer Wasn’t Born In Tennessee explains, he’s been writing country songs since about 1959, yet has spent 90 percent of his life in his native New York: as if that weren’t perverse enough, he’s the author of one of the five most widely-covered rock songs of all time (Wild Thing, purveyed tonight with dirgey, lowdown, bluesy swagger) another one that’s done the rounds a fair bit (Angel Of The Morning, its gospel-tinged harmonies provided tonight by his road manager’s mildly embarrassed daughter) and a third which we sadly don’t get this evening (the Hollies’ I Can’t Let Go) yet 90 percent of the people on most streets from Manhattan to Milton Keynes have still probably never heard of him. By that token alone, he should be in line for some form of Clandestinity Award.

He’s also done his fair share of drinking, gave up live performance and songwriting for most of the late 70s, 80s and 90s to become a ‘professional gambler’ (something he now freely admits was a bad idea) and even that wasn’t his first descent into radical whimsy, having attempted during his early career to quit music for a career in golf. Then, all of a sudden, in the mid 90s, he resurfaced, often working with much younger artists in the ‘alt country’ or ‘anti folk’ vein: four years ago, at an age where most songwriters would have long settled into comfortable respectability, he released an album entitled Fuck All The Perfect People, the bittersweet title track of which forms the first section of this evening’s encore. Mournful without being morose, melancholy without being moribund, it’s the kind of song designed to instil distinguished yet rabidly defiant thoughts of quiet rebellion in the listener- and that’s precisely what it does.

More to the point, the fact that he only occasionally swears whilst relating any number of fascinating anecdotes (including witnessing the birth of rock’n’roll on his parents’ TV in his Yonkers home aged 14 and realising for the first time exactly what he wanted to do with his life) yet is still able to openly drop a song with such blatantly profane language into his set with casual abandon actually speaks more volumes about his unique muse than he’s probably consciously aware of. As does, without wanting to sound in any way elitist, the fact that rather than settle for the easy option and fill his performance with an endless string of hits as covered by Johnny Tillotson, Jackie DeShannon, Janis Joplin (much like Jimmy Webb, you can fling an arrow into the last 50 years of rock and roll and sooner or later find someone who’s recorded a Taylor composition) he’s much happier riffling through the deepest, darkest cuts of his back catalogue and eagerly reminding us of his validity with several selections of more recent material.

Make no mistake, Chip will never be a heritage act: whether he’s still, at this late stage of his life, a reprobate is open to interpretation, but as nice a bloke as he is, and as appreciative as he is of his fans’ enthusiasm, he’s also clearly unconcerned as to whether or not he receives approbation from the world at large. Which, naturally, makes me love him all the more- and if I’m that badass when I’m 76, I’ll consider myself to have finally done something right. In 2016, Chip Taylor simply is: long may he continue to be. Especially as he’s promised to play Lightnin’ for me next year once he remembers the chords…