Emerging from Colorado back in 2005, Great American Taxi fused the Leftover Salmon-soaked vibe of Vince Herman with some of Boulder’s best roots players. More than a decade later, the group, minus Herman and a few other earlier pioneers, is still rolling and just released its fourth CD. With a solid chunk of road in the rearview and a revamped lineup, it seems like a good time to reflect on the band’s storied ride and see what lies ahead for the scrappy aggregation of pickers from the Centennial State.
Featuring the lineup of Chad Staehly (keyboards, vocals), Jim Lewin (guitar, vocals), Brian Adams (bass, vocals), newest member Arthur Lee Land (guitar, banjo, vocals) and guest drummer Duane Trucks (Hard Working Americans, Widespread Panic), the group’s fourth studio effort, Dr. Feelgood’s Traveling Medicine Show, was produced by Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone at Silo Sound Studios in Denver CO, and released on January 6, 2017.
TipJar: Congratulations on keeping the Taxi rolling across the American landscape for more than a decade. Great American Taxi has gone through some personnel changes since it first started. For those who might not know its history, can you reflect a little on the different eras of the group?
Original keyboardist Chad Staehly: The band started initially as a one-off show for a Rainforest Action Group affiliated with The University of Colorado at Boulder. Our intent was to name the band for only one show, funny how things take on a life of their own. Here we are almost 12 years later with probably 1,000 shows played. The band was built around Vince Herman from Leftover Salmon. I had asked him for some names of people he wanted to play with from the Boulder area. He gave me two great singer-songwriters’ names, Reed Foehl and Jefferson Hamer. I was friends with both of them and they both wanted to play the benefit with us. The line-up was rounded out with Will Downes on bass (who played with Jefferson in Single Malt Band) and Jake Coffin on drums (I had been playing some with Jake in the John McKay Band). We wanted to do sort of a throw-back to the New Riders of the Purple Sage so we felt we needed a pedal steel player and we asked Eben Grace (from Grace Design) to play steel and he agreed to do that. After the first rehearsal for the one show we were going to do, everyone had goose bumps and immediately we started talking about doing more shows. Touring with a new seven-piece band proved to be impossible so we slimmed it down to a five piece (Eben and Reed ducked out as they didn’t want to be touring much anyways). Will Downes our bassist left only after a few months and Jake Coffin called his buddy Brian Schey to play bass. Brian and Jake had been touring with Dan Bern for a handful of years.
That version of the five piece band (Vince Herman, Jefferson Hamer, Brian Schey, Jake Coffin and myself) toured for a couple of years mainly out West and some points in the Midwest. Brian Schey left after a couple of years to work on some other stuff he had been wanting to take on so we brought in Edwin Hurwitz who had been playing bass with all kinds of people in the Boulder area after his main project Shockra decided to call it quits. Mike Gordon from Phish had even sought out Edwin at some point in his career for a couple of lessons on some techniques Edwin was using in his playing when he was still touring with Shockra. With Edwin in tow we toured the country relentlessly. Around 2009 or so Jefferson decided he wanted to do more folk music and was going to move to Brooklyn so he left the band. Vince and I had always loved playing with Barry Sless so we asked Barry to join up. Barry wanted to play with us but couldn’t commit to full time touring so we also approached Jim Lewin (who was on old college buddy of Edwin’s who had sat in with the band a few times when we were playing in Santa Cruz, CA where Jim lives). Jim and Barry split duties for about a year and finally Jim decided to jump on full time as his kids were starting to get a little older and some time freed up for him.
We toured our asses off and about a year later Jake Coffin started to get burned out by all the touring and decided to leave the band to be home more. After Jake left on drums we hired Chris Sheldon and continued to tour about 150 shows per year (released our sophomore album Reckless Habits produced by Tim Carbone) and finally started to develop a real national following. I think it was 2011 or so when Edwin decided he was going to head off to law school so we were in need of a bass player. Chris Sheldon recommended Brian Adams (as did Edwin). Chris and Brian had toured together for a handful of years as Phix the Phish tribute band so they had a long-standing musical relationship to build off. Shortly after Brian joined the band we had connected with the great Nashville-based songwriter Todd Snider and started to play a bunch of shows with Todd (who you could consider an honorary member of GAT as well). Snider ended up producing our third album Paradise Lost. Shortly after we released that album, Vince was starting to work with Leftover Salmon a lot more and I started a family of my own and things started to slow down for GAT.
After a year or so of slowed down touring, we started talking about releasing a live album that we ended up recording on a Front Range run of shows at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom in Denver and the Aggie Theatre in Ft. Collins. Jon O’Leary engineered and mixed the whole album. It was done and in the can and as we were making plans to release it and tour behind it, Vince decided he could no longer maintain two bands (he was moving to Oregon at the time and had fallen in love with his future wife). Vince encouraged us to keep the band going if we wanted to. We took the time to think about it and tried out a few players to try and fill Vince’s role in the band (which was going to be no easy task). We shelved the live album and ended up hiring Taylor Sims from Lyons, CO to become a chief songwriter and singer in the band.
We actually hit Coupe Studios in Boulder, CO, and started in on a new studio album with Taylor. As soon as we started to make plans to finish the album and get behind it and tour, Taylor decided he could not commit to all the work at hand (he was also playing in a band with his wife at the time) and he bowed out. I thought that was probably going to be the end of the band, but we still had promoters we worked with for years asking us to come and play so we thought we’d search again for a replacement. I had the idea of bringing Arthur Lee Land into the fold. He had just moved back to Colorado and was looking for a project to sink his teeth into. We had a couple of jams with Arthur and everyone agreed it was a really good fit, he and Jim would start dueling it out with their telecasters. Around the same time that Arthur came on board we split ways with Chris Sheldon our drummer.
We were getting ready to make the new album with Arthur and didn’t have a drummer hired. I had been speaking with my Hard Working Americans bandmate Duane Trucks about taking on the gig possibly and recording the album with us. That was literally a week or two before he got the call to sub the fall tour for Widespread Panic. It turned out that the tour was ending in Denver that year (2014) so we decided to get into the studio right after that to record the album. At that time we thought Duane might still be open to doing the gig as he hadn’t permanently taken the full time gig with Panic yet. Tim Carbone also jumped on board to help us produce the album. We felt like we needed an outside voice to help us navigate song selection, ideas, etc. We had an A-team assembled and were super excited about the results we got in the studio. After we got the album mixed in Spring of 2015, Duane had gotten the call to join Widespread Panic full time so we were on the search for a drummer again. Nate Barnes from Rose Hill Drive jumped into the seat and played a bunch of shows with us in the interim, but we knew he wouldn’t be able to sign on full time so that kept us delaying the release of the album while we figured out the drummer situation. Eventually Arthur brought in local Denver drummer, Will Trask who had the time and skills to take over. Once we had Will locked in we were able to set our course and actually make some plans to release this new album.
How does it feel to be the last original guy standing?
It’s crazy to be standing here as the only founding member of the band, not sure it’s good or bad (ha!), but I guess it speaks to my Midwestern upbringing and the stick-to-it-ness that was instilled in me, or maybe it’s just happenstance how things work out. This is certainly not the course I charted for this project, it was always kind of Vince’s band with me helping behind the scenes. I didn’t think it would ever continue after one of us left, but as I mentioned, promoters wanted to keep hiring the band so we obliged and here we are with a new album coming out 12 years later after this all got started.
It has been an awesome journey and all who have played in the band I would call them all brothers, there’s no bond quite like that which you create with guys in a band who tour the country relentlessly with you. You go through the fire together so to speak. I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything else and feel blessed to have been able to take this ride for 12 years and counting.
How did you arrive at the name for this new album — Dr. Feelgood’s Traveling Medicine Show?
“Dr. Feelgood’s Traveling Medicine Show” is a song on the album (it’s the most produced song on the album and also probably the most light-hearted). When we were talking about what to call the album, that song’s name seemed to speak to what this band has been about through the years, all the traveling and trying to bring about a good time to all whom we encounter along the way. GAT’s shows have always been about celebrating the here and now.
A song like “We Can Run” sounds like good old Taxi to me. How would you describe the overall sound of this release (and the current band in general) and where does this sound come from?
“We Can Run” is probably the most tame song in terms of production and style on the album and does sound like “good old Taxi.” Overall we did push ourselves and challenge ourselves with the recording process on this new album. Tim Carbone who produced the album turned us onto this studio in Denver called Silo Sound. Todd Divel the owner of the studio also engineered and mixed this album. He invested himself one hundred percent into this album and let us turn off the clock so to speak so we were really able to get after some creativity and develop some new sonic textures in the songs. It was something I’ve always wanted to do but never had the opportunity to get that creative in the tracking and mixing. I think we spoke to our past but also pushed ourselves into a new and engaging direction. Taxi is an Americana band in its heart of hearts but we wanted to expand the spectrum a bit with this album and I think we did that both in song style and production. The sound of the band is derived from a host of roots forms of American music, we try to incorporate rock, country, jazz and more into our sound.
Has your recording process changed over the years? What’s different now when you record, than from when you recorded the the very first Taxi CD (Streets of Gold)?
The recording process is always changing as you move forward in your career, whether it’s due to new influences that you’ve been listening to, technological advances or just trying to be creative. As mentioned before, this was the first time Taxi was able to really stretch its’ wings in the studio and not worry so much about the clock and the money. It was a great luxury to have and I’ll never take it for granted. The first Taxi album we made, we made in about five days (tracked and mixed) and made on a $2,000 budget. This album was worked on for well over a year. You learn to be patient and to not cut yourself short after you’ve made enough records. You don’t let things get compromised and you also develop a better sense of what you want and how you get what you want if you stay after this craft long enough.
Does the band still dip into its old repertoire? Would you ever play a song like “Lumpy Beanpole and Dirt” anymore or “Cinched Up?”
The band is certainly still playing songs from its’ whole songbook (not really playing many songs from players/writers who have left the band, but we still do play the Danny Barnes’ song “Lumpy, Beanpole & Dirt”). Some of the songs I wrote in the past have become Taxi staples so to speak and did well on radio, the same with some of Jim Lewin’s material. Plus keeping the old songs around helps us mix up the set lists from night to night. We’re also always bringing in new cover songs as well to keep things interesting.
Can you tell us a little bit about Arthur (Lee Land) who now fronts the band? How does he differ from original frontman Vince Herman? Does he have anything in common with Vince?
When Vince left the band, we certainly didn’t think we’d go out and get another front man and weren’t really looking to do that. We wanted someone who was a strong singer and could write songs but we wanted that person to fit into the group aesthetic and not really front the band per se. Arthur writes a lot of songs as his wife Carol is his lyricist so they have a large volume of output. We were able to sift through a bunch of songs to find the more Taxi-sounding ones.
Arthur is a great fit for the band, he comes from the Grateful Dead/classic country background that so many of us do. He’s been a great addition to our JAMericana sound or as we’ve called it in the past, or “Americana Without Borders.” Arthur has the musical chops and the personality we needed to help round things back out and keep us rolling. He and Jim are absolute maestros on true telecaster style of playing rock and country and it’s been a blast watching those guys go at it in the live setting and on the album.
How did you divide the songwriting on this latest release? Or, who wrote what?
We had a good pile of songs heading into the studio and that’s probably the biggest reason we brought in a producer to help us was the decisions on what songs to record. We probably had 25 plus songs on the menu and Tim helped us whittle it down to 10 that stood up well on their own and also held together as a piece of work, as an album. Not sure people listen to full albums anymore these days but we still wanted to create a full body of work that stood together and had a sequence, a journey to bring the listener on. Arthur and his wife Carol wrote five of the songs on the album, I wrote four of the songs but had opened up my process to Jim and Tim and they helped sand some corners on a couple of them and then Jim has one song that is all his own on the album. I dig everyone’s songwriting contributions and really the band helped write all of it as we worked out arrangements, parts and sounds in the studio. It was a great process to be involved with.
Who comprises your audience? Are there younger fans turning up (as well as people who enjoyed you from the get-go)?
I’m not sure there’s a general identity to our audience and really we’ve got to kind of build a new audience with the new line-up and album. We haven’t been super active the last couple of years so it’s anyone’s guess as to what the future holds or what our audience is going to look like.
We certainly are seeing plenty of the long standing fans coming out to the shows (and I would hardly call them fans, they are friends, we’ve built an awesome family around the country). I think anyone from children on up to baby-boomers will find something to latch onto at a Taxi show!
What’s in front of the Taxi for the immediate future?
Taxi is going to get out and support this new album that is out on LoHi Records this year. I’ve also been talking to my old buddy Todd Snider and he wants to head out with Taxi on some dates this year as well. I think 2017 could be a good year for the band reestablishing itself on the scene. We’re looking forward to what lies ahead.