Former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor ended his recent first set at the New York jazz club Iridium with the closest thing so far, in that band's 50th year, to a birthday present: a long spell in the instrumental-groove half of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" from Sticky Fingers. Taylor, who co-starred on the original track with saxophonist Bobby Keys, shared the soloing with his group, which included guitarist Jon Paris, two ex-Jeff Beck sidemen – keyboard player Max Middleton and bassist Wilbur Bascomb – and the venerable session drummer Bernard Purdie.
Taylor's own break seemed curt and unduly reserved for a band leader – clipped phrases, single notes briefly shaken with tremolo – until you remembered that he dazzled with the same understatment on the 1971 recording. The swing was looser this time, more stroll than panther's strut, and so was Taylor's articulation. At 63, Taylor is forever condemned to comparisons with the quiet concentrated fire he brought to the Stones' second golden age, when he joined the band in 1969 at 20. He now plays with a survivor's tone and honesty: direct, unhurried and a little ragged at times; the sound of a man who got to know the blues and the price of glory too well.
Losing Faith, Breaking Down
At Iridium, Taylor looked as uneasy in the limelight as he did in the sidelight during his five years with the Stones, making barely necessary eye contact through his thick, graying bangs with the fans at this sold-out show. It wasn't hard to hear why: Taylor's singing was, at best, serviceable, almost boy-ishly rough. There was more vocal expression and projection in his tart, jabbing fills and the pensive snarl of his solos. The seesaw of Taylor's life after he left the Stones in 1974 – the drifting, substance abuse and dogged return to health and a more modest celebrity – was evident in the original songs "Losing My Faith" and "Fed Up With the Blues." Taylor also freely acknowledged his inspirations: B.B. and Albert King in the former song; a lick from Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" in the latter, along with a quote from Freddy King's "I'm Tore Down."
It is ironic that Taylor essentially packed Iridium as an ex-Stone. He was one of rock's great sideman before his tenure in the Stones' vertigo – as a teenager in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers – and after, for Jack Bruce and on Bob Dylan's Infidels and 1984 European tour. Even in the Stones, Taylor played more like a counterpart than a member, against the Glimmer Twins' R&B-scoundrel grain with melodic determination and clarity.
His mixed emotions from that time still show: Taylor stumbled over the word "Stones" when he introduced the instrumental take on "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." But at Iridium, for an encore, Taylor came back with Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down," reprising the rhythm and his wiry-shriek slide work from the Stones' Exile on Main Street cover. "I got some stuff that will blow you away," Taylor sang at one point – and let us have it, a little bit at a time.