Taxi Chain, Smarten Up! (Northern Blues, 2004)

Martin Luther King was shot,
Elvis Presley got his start... in Memphis.
the Mississippi mud runs thick,
Jeff Buckley did attest to it... in Memphis...
 
take 40 down to 55,
I'll see you by the riverside...
in Memphis...

So goes the leadoff track to Taxi Chain's new CD, Smarten Up! It's a sort of funky mellow bluesy tune, with thoughtful lyrics, and the band sounds, well, almost like the Band. Drums, bass, guitars, organ, saxes and harmony vocals. Very nice. But then track two comes in all Celtic, tin whistles, highland bagpipes, mandolin, piccolo, and a fiddler named Pat Simmonds (!) ...it makes one step back and take another look at the insert picture. Well, geez, sure enough in the silhouette band shot... there's a guy holding bagpipes! The third track kicks in. It's called "James Brown Ate My Bagpipe," and son of a gun, if that isn't what it sounds like. A funk riff on the bass, and echoes of JB's band on the pipes!

"Wot the #$%^ are you listenin' to, Dave?!?!" Spike queries from his spot on the couch. It's this new CD by Taxi Chain. And man, it's not easy to describe. Previous writers have said, "...sounds like Tom Waits on a two day bender [playing in] a country bar, fronting a rock band, while playing the bagpipes" (C'est What Web site). I know what they mean, but... that's not it. "Think The Highlander meets The Commitments" (Hugh Blumenfield, at About.com). But that's not right, either. No, Taxi Chain is not like anything I've ever heard before... at least, nothing I've ever heard only one band play. The album could have a schizophrenic feel to it, if they weren't so sure of themselves.

This is their sound (these are their sounds?): There's a dab of blues, a healthy dose of rock, a bit of Celtic, with some funk and country dropped in for good measure. "Buck a Joy" is a John Lee Hookerish blues, with some tasty tenor guitar from leader (and piper) Grier Coppins, second guitar by Ayron Mortley, the solid rhythm section of Joe Burns (bass) and Ron Rooth (drums), the sax of Jim Bish and piano by guest Mark Wessenger. Then just as you're digging the blues, "attesting to the Mississippi mud" as it were, along comes "Tandoori Mustache" with its distinctive Third World feel. "It's Your Birthday" reminds me of 3 Mustaphas 3. Okay, it doesn't really sound like them (much), it just reminds me of them.

"Zimbobby" is a pipe-tune. "Wait, Spike, come back!" It features some precise interplay between pipes and guitar, with a creative bassline, sax harmonies and a driving beat, then it all dissipates into a jazzy coffee bar, and Mickey Spillane walks in with a blonde bombshell at his side. The rain is steady. Wait. The mood reverts. Fascinating stuff. Just a minute, are my feet moving? Am I... dancing? Then the album concludes with "Memphis reprise." Life is cyclical, and so too is Taxi Chain. It's been one hell of a ride.

In the mood for something a bit different? Smarten Up! and give Taxi Chain a listen.

[David Kidney]

Find out more about Taxi Chain at the Northern Blues Web site.