Live show: Shawn Taylor at Cave à Vin

Shawn Taylor playing acoustic guitar in dark wine bar.
Shawn Taylor at Cafe a Vin

“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” works brilliantly as a murder ballad.

When I was scouring event calendars for low-cost opportunities to get back on pace to see 100 shows this year, Americana artist Shawn Taylor’s name came up more than once, and it seemed like common sense to check out his music for the first time at a neighborhood hang-out, Cave à Vin.

Since it was too dark for my phone to take video, unless you’re moved by singing smudges, let’s borrow a session from Out of the Woods Radio, and then we can talk wine and song.

Cave à Vin is the wine enthusiast’s living room. Two sets of sofas, a baby grand piano, a couple tables, and the bar are squeezed into a narrow storefront in the James Mallory building on State Street. The wine menu has the heft and authority of local diner menus, and is similarly organized into short subcategories of products that are surprisingly affordable.

IMG_1295[1].JPGAfter realizing that I know about 2% of what it’d be useful to know about wine, I went with a Soave Classico from the “interesting and intriguing” section of the menu. It was fantastic. It was like drinking spring, complete with buds, brisk breezes, and the return of Persephone. My crab cakes were delicious, and I know only about 4% of what it’s useful to know about crab cakes, so I’ll leave it at that.

Shawn Taylor opened his acoustic set with… a pop classic with an arrangement so clever that I was thinking nooooo it can’t be… yes, it is… nooooo, it can’t be. Yes, it was: “Mama Said,” rendered as the wisdom of an Appalachian hill woman.

Now, I joke about the popularity of angsty acoustic covers, but when it’s done thoughtfully, it’s a life-changing perspective on the song. The bones that were buried under pop-production froth now come to light, peeking through disturbed soil, hinting of forgotten cemeteries and concealed tragedies. They bring a whiff of distant past with them, and when you touch one, you realize a lot has gone down here and we’re very small and very specific and very alive in our tiny slice of history.

Two splendid crab cakes on a bed of greens.
Crab cakes. You’re getting a lot of food pics because the lighting was brighter over my plate.

That is what you get with Shawn Taylor (there are originals, too — this was an ambiance gig*, so it skewed toward covers). His fingerpicking guitar style tells your hindbrain (and your forebrain, if you’re smart about guitars) that this is roots music of one sort or another, and his husky, smoky tenor pulls you into one late-night, shiver-provoking or heart-warming story after another.

Taylor calls his style “wandering roots,” as it encompasses a variety of folk traditions, and if you sit long enough, you’ll hear a little island, a little blues, a little this-and-that from all over. He’s musically the embodiment of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

Although I’m pretty obviously at the “falling off the bar stool with glee” phase of enthusiasm, my stay was limited by my capacity for alcohol and my chutzpah in holding onto a bar stool without ordering a drink, in a place that was jam-packed. Ambiance gigs like this are a great way to be introduced to an artist, but not so good for exploring the artist’s original music in any detail. For that, it looks like I’ve got to hie myself to a very serious-business acoustic Americana concert series in Rocky Hill, which I’m kicking myself for not discovering earlier, as an artist I like a lot played it last week.

The best place to catch up with him appears to be his official site: He plays all over (if you’re in West Virginia, lookin’ for your mountain mama, you need to check out his show schedule, as he’s there a lot this year). You could potentially go listen to his 2017 album, Balance, and decide you need to own this good stuff. (The opening track shows such a musical sense of humor. Video by EOP Live.)

*“Ambiance gig” is my newly coined term for when you play at a bar or restaurant or coffeehouse as background music, in contrast to the kind of club gig where people are there specifically to hear music and give it more than half their attention. This is obviously a continuum rather than two discreet things, and the feel can vary a lot with the venue and crowd.

As a music fan, I like ambiance gigs as an affordable way to double my discovery of New England’s charms, since the music is usually free with the food and drink. Ambiance gigs do tend to run more heavily to covers because that’s what super-casual listeners recognize and enjoy. People who’ve known me for a while will remember when I was The Only Person Paying Attention To The Music at the Even Stevens in downtown Phoenix and would goad the performers to play originals. 

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