Chasing Paradise with Great American Taxi

By: Dennis Cook

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Great American Taxi
It’s hard to imagine someone not liking Great American Taxi. In their bone structure and general jiggle, GAT is a modern equivalent to Little Feat, Los Lobos and the Grateful Dead – i.e. bonhomie rich, barroom ready rockers with a healthy facility with twangy stuff, all anchored to quality songwriting, playing and presentation. The Taxi is the whole dang package for someone looking to lift their heels whilst wetting their whistle and getting their head and heart fed, too. In short, Great American Taxi is a speakeasy where all are welcome, and Vince Herman (vocals, guitar, mandolin, etc), Chad Staehly (keys), Jim Lewin (guitar), Chris Sheldon (drums) and Brian Adams (bass) pour concoctions likely to make one laugh and tear up in quick measure.

Produced by East Nashville singer-songwriter extraordinaire Todd Snider (who GAT backs with some frequency), the band’s third long-player, Paradise Lost (released October 11) is their end-to-end strongest effort yet, a song cycle about where too many Americans find themselves in this rough year (with many rough years like it ahead). There’s the wistful undercurrent of the touring life and its toll on a man, too, but throughout there is a wisp of hope, a sense things could be better even if they aren’t today. Guests like Tim O’Brien, Barry Sless and Elizabeth Cook add perfect touches to an album filled with heartfelt, impeccably played music.

We sat down with GAT co-founder, keyboardist, singer and songwriter Chad Staehly to survey the band’s latest work and what the future holds for the group.

New Album
JamBase: There’s probably not a harder working road band out there than Great American Taxi, yet we live in a time where the whole notion of “if ya work real hard you’ll succeed, sailor!” is kinda bunk. There are plenty of people with 2-3 jobs that can’t keep food on their tables or a roof over their heads. I get the sense the title Paradise Lost touches on this idea.

Chad Staehly: That’s a big part of the whole theme - so many of us have been devalued in this country, in this political and economic climate, and this spiritual climate, too. It just seems like on so many levels we’re just lost, but that’s not to say we can’t find our way out of this. We were a little hesitant about the title Paradise Lost, which we worried might carry too many negative connotations. We were concerned with it being too big a downer, but we’re not saying it’s all lost and forsaken and there’s no chance of digging our way out of this. It’s just acknowledging where we are and maybe offering some ideas for how we can get back on track. We have hope we can do that.

JamBase: What a novel concept in 2011 for a rock album to strive for more than being a soundtrack for drunken idiot behavior. Chad Staehly: Although we’re good at that, too [laughs]. Yes, we can be good at catering to that but we felt there was something else we needed to address, though we’ve touched on these themes on all of our albums. We try to cast a light on some important things but never taking ourselves too seriously. After all, life is short and we have to have fun while we’re here.

Chuck Berry
These ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be a party band that also sits down to think a bit.

Good rock ‘n’ roll was built on this combination for decades going back to Chuck Berry. I don’t know how many people have truly digested Chuck Berry’s lyrics. He was saying a lot as well yelling about rock ‘n’ roll and shaking our tail feathers. There’s a lot of substance to Chuck Berry’s lyrics, and good rock ‘n’ roll has always been a vehicle for expressing those things.

Up until Dylan and the other 60s folk-rockers lyrics were a bit more coded, and maybe that the way deeper ideas sneak back in now is whispering in code instead of using a bullhorn, which just turns a lot of people off and sends them into the zillions of options not preaching at them.

You have to do that because if anyone sees you standing up on a soapbox trying to ram your ideals and socio-political ideas down their throats they’re immediately gonna change the channel. There’s no doubt about that. That’s part of the evolution of humans, particularly in this day and age of technology where a good portion of us live individually through our computers. It works both ways though. Facebook has been great for people to come together. Facebook was even kind of credited with the revolution in Egypt. It blows your mind, but it also helps separate people, too.

Chad Staehly by Eric Peter Abramson
As a hard touring band, you’re engaged in one of the last public rituals that’s nondenominational, a gathering not built around a cross or other religious symbol that brings people together for a shared purpose. Concerts are one of the few remaining antidotes to our growing insular separateness.

It sure is! We say all the time – whether we’re in some little rural town in Montana or playing downtown Denver for one of the free concerts in the town square or park – that this is one of the last places people come out and enjoy some time together. I grew up being a Deadhead and traveling around with people. No matter if it was the middle-of-summer tour or the Rosemont Horizon in the middle of the winter you always got people from all walks of life because that band was so universal and could speak on so many levels to so many people. The Dead could get people together creating their own thing and it really brought people together, which is a magical thing. That’s one of the best things in life when that happens.

You don’t get to choose who stands with you in those moments. You probably won’t even like everyone around you but you’re in it together and you figure out how to make it work. That’s real democracy in action.

Vince Herman by Zach Mahone
There’s no doubt about that, and a lot of those differences are transcended. If you’re really there for the music and to have a good time, well, that’s a big part of why I like to go to a rock ‘n’ roll show. All those little things that have been eating at me all day or all week or all year they’re just not present if you’re there in that moment. A lot of spiritually geared people from various denominations and practices are trying to get to that moment because it’s the best place to be in this life. All the other stuff fades away and you’re able to enjoy and be and not be caught up in so many other things.

Taxi is a perfect band for pursuing this state of mind. You throw your arms open really wide, so the drunkard and the wallflower get pulled together out on the floor.

We definitely approach it that way and a big part of that is Vince, who’s been on a stage for 25 years now, opening those big arms of his and saying, “We’re all here together. We’re in this together, and it can be total fun. We might hit a bump or two on the road but we’ll just let it slide for these three hours we’re together.” A lot of magic can happen when you leave that opportunity open to happen. We sail or crash based on the audience. If the audience is there with us, the sky is the limit. If they’re not, it can feel like we’re driving through mud. We need the audience to be with us because that’s when we feel the magic happen. It can be amazing when we get to a point where it doesn’t feel like we’re playing our instruments and we’ve all been transported to this otherworldly place. It doesn’t happen all the time but when it does it’s incredible. The grins spread from the band through the crowd on the floor to the bar in the back, and everyone is smiling and feeling good and it’s a place of nirvana almost. You don’t live your everyday life there, so it’s really special to get there.

Great American Taxi
I’ve been thinking about where Great American Taxi fits in the scheme of things, and one place that seemed right was the Cosmic American thing Gram Parsons talked about, that mixture of country, blues and rock blurred together in a new church that celebrates all these great American attributes without having to read a book or bend a knee.

It’s a folk tradition really. When we were putting together the press release for [Paradise Lost] I was asked, “How would you describe it?” and I came up with electrified folk music for our times. I find that any artist – writers, musicians, playwrights, etc. – carrying on the oral tradition of the folklore of this country that’s over 200 years old draws on characters and storylines and events that continue to be passed down through the generations and various art forms. That was something I’ve always appreciated about Robert Hunter, who created these really new folks songs that intertwine these characters and themes and stories of old. We’re trying to continue that tradition playing what is really country-folk music – music of the common man. I don’t think we’re doing any high art [laughs]. It’s blue-collar art and music, and we feel like anyone could show up at a Great American Taxi show and start tapping their foot or find something in a lyric they relate to. We’re striving to maintain universality and the tradition of songs being passed around for years.

Stick out your thumb, kids…
The band’s name speaks to an egalitarian spirit. The taxi is one of those things, in theory, that anyone can hail. America at its best –and we are not at our best right now – is about saying, “Y’all welcome!” with the understanding that each new person from wherever they may hail brings something new and potentially enriching to this country, so let’s all ride together, eh?

We stumbled into the name. We thought it would be the name of a band that played one show. Well, 750 shows or so later here it is. When we first started we went through some lineup changes, and at one point Vince and I looked at each other and said, “Maybe the lineup is just gonna keep changing and that’s part of the whole Taxi thing.” Vince and I are just the drivers. Who knows, maybe there’ll be a Great American Taxi in 10-15 years without us [laughs].

I think you guys have something that could live a really long time.

In relative terms, seven years isn’t that long for a band, but we’re hoping all the hard, hard work we’ve put in for those seven years pays off in something that will continue on and take on a life of its own. In 2012, we’re gonna lighten up the workload and let the thing breath. We’ve poured a ton of love into it and it’s time to let it go and see if it loves us back.

Great American Taxi Tour Dates :: Great American Taxi News

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[Published on: 12/14/11]

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