Taylor Carano is a whiskey kind of guy.
You can hear it in his music, which he describes as “alternative folk/funk rock,” but is probably better described as “brown liquor music” or “rusty barn rock blues.”
Carano has been releasing music under his own name and with former bands The Bleeding Feathers and The Fleecers since his teens. He’s rocked many local venues, including the Stone Tavern in Kent, Buzzbin in Canton, and the G.A.R. Hall in Peninsula. The band’s latest lineup, featuring Dominic Van Divner on bass guitar and Brant Novak on drums, stopped in The Empire Concert Club, 1305 E. Tallmadge Ave., May 20 to play a set of bouncy blues-rock numbers stuffed with soul.
“Mr. Definitely,” an instrumental display of fuzzy guitar swagger from Carano’s latest record, opened the set. Next was “Good Morning, Blues,” a newly-written song showcasing Carano’s distinctive howl.
He does howl, by the way. Sometimes he growls, too, with a pained expression, as if he’s just swallowed a shot of Maker’s Mark, like he did at the bar before the show. Still, Carano retains a touch of smoothness to his vocals.
“I want to sound like Nina Simone with an edge of masculine roughness,” Carano said on the car ride to the venue, confessing his admiration for female soul singers. On guitar, he aspires to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hendrix, Santana and Jimmy Page. He enjoys discussing the brilliance of R.L. Burnside and Elmore James.
The band then moved into a down tempo version of “Hit the Road Jack,” transforming the Ray Charles classic from a jittery ballpark jingle into a slow cruise over desert roads by nightfall. Then Carano switched from electric to acoustic guitar and Novak traded his drumsticks for brushes to play “The Ride,” a plodding blues stomper from the 2011 “Speak of the Devil” EP.
Carano is a student of the blues, immersing himself in the sounds of the Mississippi Delta from his homestead bordering the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
“Blues music comes from an old guy sitting drunk in a chair, playing a four-and-a-half string guitar,” Carano said, while smoking in the Bat Cave, his cozy practice space in the corner of a blistered white barn. “I’m never going to be as cool as that old guy. I’m just trying to be.”
He recorded his last two albums, “Friends of Friends” and “Where Hate & Ash Bury,” in the Bat Cave, where posters of rock’s finest (John Lennon, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan circa 1965, etc.) cover almost every inch of wall space that isn’t scribbled over in black marker. The room is packed with amplifiers, guitars, a drum set and a hand-me-down piano, as well as a couch for friends who just want to kick back and watch jam sessions.
For the recording of “Where Hate & Ash Bury” in 2015, Carano enlisted seven local musicians, including singer/songwriter Johnny G and fellow Bleeding Feather Austin Glosik, as well as other friends in the Akron music scene. “Friends of Friends,” released this year, brought back the same names with the addition of rapper ?aradox for a rap/rock hybrid track that shouts out Tupac, the Wu-Tang Clan and Lunchables snack packs.
Novak and Van Divner walked to the bar for drinks while Carano strummed out a solo acoustic rendition of “What We’ve Got,” a song at least partially criticizing laziness, self-absorption and a lack of toughness in millennials. (It also includes this lyric: “Ain’t no whiskey gonna rock my gut”: no line better exemplifies Carano’s style.) Then came the sunny, reggae-flavored “Forgive Me,” followed by the heavy-hitting sludge of “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” complete with an extended jam at the end to let Van Divner and Carano prove their chops.
Speaking of chops, Carano shreds on guitar.
“I’ve only met a few people who can play guitar the way Taylor does,” said Novak, the 43-year-old multi-instrumentalist who has played in bands ranging in genre from “classic psychedelic sleaze rock” to “roots rock” throughout his lengthy career as a musician.
“He’ll put a guitar lick out there that’ll blow your mind.”
“Repertoire,” a fast-paced thrasher revealing Carano’s appreciation for Rage Against the Machine’s up-tempo outbursts, closed out the set and gave everyone in the crowd something to violently bash their heads to. Little head-bashing actually ensued, though, seeing as this was a show in a relatively polished bar where the bathroom actually smelled like disinfectant and the audience sat in small cliques at restaurant-style tables painted a sleek black.
In a perfect world, Carano’s band would play every show in a decrepit barn crammed with sweaty onlookers. There would be rotting bar stools, dirty boots and billows of smoke rising to the rafters.
And of course there’d be whiskey. There would be lots of whiskey.