To be more specific, these artists are part of a now-long-list of performers featured in the Black Cab Sessions. For those not in the know, the Black Cab Sessions are a series of (very) small scale performances by musicians, filmed in the back of a black hack. The taxi occasionally travels further afield, but it is most often the busy streets of London that we see (and hear!) through the black cab windows.
You may be wondering, how can these artists cram their usual gig equipment (amps, instruments, PAs – not to mention band members) into the back of a taxi? Well, they can’t. Artists don’t have the luxury of using state-of-the-art sound systems or amplifiers because they, simply, don’t fit! But that’s the beauty of the Sessions; performances are stripped to the bare bones, often without a band member or two – sorry pal, I don’t think you’ll get that drum kit in – and, for me at least, it makes the human aspect of the songs a lot more visible.
Gone is the barrier between audience and onstage performer. And, gone too, are the hours spent polishing the song in a studio to create the “perfect” record. One song, one take; that’s all you get. So, instead of being given a pristine, radio friendly product, we, as listeners, can enjoy an engrossing human experience.
Adding to the experience are the moving images and everyday sounds of the UK’s capital city. The surroundings often provide an entertaining backdrop for the variety of music played in the taxi – in his session, Bonnie Prince Billy can’t help but react (worriedly) to a police siren coming from the world outside. In a trip abroad for the BCS’s taxi, the dark Texas skies seem an appropriate setting for Laura Marling’s Rambling Man, as the taxi engine rumbles along steadily in the background.
For singer/songwriters like Daniel Johnston, who is known for his own DIY method of lo-fi record production, these sessions are perfect. Johnston’s fanbase is one that, compared to the average demographic, may be more attached to the human-behind-the-music, thanks in part to the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. And, thankfully, Johnston took a jaunt in the taxi in the BCS’s first year, giving a lovely, intimate performance that fans are sure to love.
I hope you get the same joy from watching this clip as I do. It’s easy to see the artists’ enjoyment during the sessions and, at the same time, a sense of vulnerability can be felt from most of the one-shot performances. This really adds to the emotional connection with the audience – something that, I think, would be lost in most live settings.
It’s also interesting how such a variety of music can benefit in this platform. While the setting may seem best suited to acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies (which are aplenty), Seasick Steve’s and Benjamin Zephania’s sessions show how artists can really own the back of the taxi. Yes I said own the back of the taxi – and I mean it! While both artists display contrasting styles – Steve’s a cool, slide guitar blues tune and Zephania’s a hard hitting, yet entertaining, poem – each performer’s energy produces a unique, captivating experience. Lianne La Havas commands audience attention in a more relaxed performance – it is her warm, soulful voice and smooth guitar playing that captures the viewer.
My admiration for the Black Cab Sessions though, is, perhaps, encapsulated best in Brian Wilson’s session. Wilson, who reportedly spent between $50,000 and $70,000 and six months recording 1964 Beach Boys’ single Good Vibrations, is accompanied only by a small keyboard and the voices of his fellow cab companions (I wonder if they had to split the fare.)
This wonderfully fun rendition of That Lucky Old Sun proves that an expansive production budget isn’t a necessity in creating an outstanding performance. In fact, I think the cosy space in the backseats improves the singing. The close proximity of each performer makes it a much more shared experience and this really shines through.
As you can tell, I love the DIY ethic of the Black Cab Sessions and, even more so, the human aspect of the performances. I’d like to see more, though I can’t think of many other platforms that show artists in the same light. Can you? Surely we don’t need every song or gig to be tediously crafted to our common notions of perfection. It is far more interesting to create or witness something new, something unique or something that’s just a little bit different from the norm. And that is, for me, what the Black Cab Sessions do so well.
What do you think? Got a favourite session I didn’t mention? Please let me know!