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The Black Sabbath challenge: Mad Cat Live goes metal

When keyboardist Steph Taylor of the Miami rock duo the State Of takes the stage in the Gleason Room at the Fillmore Miami Beach on opening night of Mad Cat Live’s four-show interpretation of the 1972 Black Sabbath album “Vol. 4,” she’ll be several steps outside of her comfort zone.

She didn’t grow up listening to any heavy metal, much less Black Sabbath, the British quartet whose dark, throbbing incantations are not known for shiny pianism.

“My first thought was, ‘OK, this could be a really interesting challenge and an opportunity for growth as a musician.’ And, boy, has it been for me,” Taylor says.

For Taylor and her bandmate in the State Of, drummer Nabedi Osorio, the Mad Cat performances — Thursday-Sunday, Oct. 12-15 — will be a chance to walk the walk that they encourage their students to take during classes they lead at Miami Girls Rock Camp. The annual summer program, which Taylor helped create in 2015, teaches girls ages 8-17 a new instrument and a week later culminates in a performance in a club-style setting in front of hundreds of guests.

A music instructor at the Mandelstam School in South Miami who also teaches piano, bass and guitar in private lessons, Taylor says the benefits of Miami Girls Rock Camp extend beyond music.

“They show up all shy and quiet and nervous, and by the end of the week they are, like, front and center onstage, playing for 500 people like it’s nothing,” Taylor says from her home in Shenandoah. “That’s a really important thing, for girls to find their own power and to be proud of it. Our camp, yes, it’s a music camp, but more than anything, it’s an empowerment camp.”

The Mad Cat Live series presents transitional albums by major artists, with some songs remaining true to their origins and others deconstructed and synthesized according to the imaginative specifications of Mad Cat founder and musical director Paul Tei. Accompanied by large puppets and other mysterious effects, performances of Black Sabbath’s “Vol. 4,” which kick off the not-for-profit Mad Cat Theatre’s 18th season, will include local multi-instrumentalists Erik Fabregat and Darren Bruck.

Taylor has taken part in Mad Cat Live performances dedicated to such piano-friendly albums as Paul McCartney’s “Ram” and Harry Nilsson’s “The Point.” For Sabbath, she is experimenting with new techniques to find a home for keyboards (sounding more like an organ) within the wall of guitar, bass, drums and howling vocals on a classic such as “Snowblind.”

“It’s great to feel challenged, and it’s important for me, as someone who’s a leader of Miami Girls Rock Camp, telling all these kids, ‘Hey, you need to step outside your comfort zone and try something new and rise to the occasion and meet these challenges.’ I can’t not take those same risks in my life and preach that,” Taylor says.

UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE

Osorio and Taylor have been bandmates and soulmates in the State Of for nearly a decade. Five years ago, Osorio decided to move to Los Angeles, where she worked as a chef and joined a band, this time playing out front on bass instead of in the back on drums. The duo hit pause on the State Of until Osorio returned in 2015.

“I wanted to challenge myself and grow as a musician, to try to do things that I hadn’t done before,” says Osorio, as she drove between music lessons (she teaches drums and percussion) in Allapattah and Miami Gardens. “I believe everybody needs that experience, just to see what you’re capable of doing. Who better to believe in yourself than yourself?”

Along with her private lessons, Osorio is involved in the nonprofit Guitars Over Guns, which brings music instruction to students in schools and neighborhoods lacking robust arts education. The benefits of music education can be useful in unanticipated ways, says Osorio, who believes music saved her life after her father died unexpectedly just before she turned 16.

“I was very sad, and music kept me alive. It kept me going, and it motivated me to always want to learn more. So when I was able to give that gift back to someone, and I saw how they lit up and how they smiled and how their life was better now because I was a part of it, that just made me light up,” she says.

While Osorio teaches all ages of females and males, her work with Miami Girls Rock Camp is particularly rewarding.

“Especially now, in the times we live in, where social media is so prominent and people look up to these quote-unquote stars that are body shaming and just really negative to one another, there’s not that camaraderie of women,” Osorio says.

“Music is a very positive thing. It’s a universal language. We’re giving girls the opportunity to know that they can do anything they want,” she says. “Growing up playing drums, I got a lot of flak from men because I was a girl. But all that did is push me to want to become better at my craft. I can’t tell you how many men compliment me because of my drumming, not because I’m a woman anymore. We want to pave that path for these girls.”

Osorio taught herself to play while air-drumming to CDs until her mother — a kindergarten teacher whose father was a Cuban jazz saxophonist and clarinetist — bought her a drum set. Black Sabbath was not an integral part of her playlist growing up, but she’s not scared of Ozzy.

“I knew that it would be a challenge, but I do appreciate Black Sabbath on such a different level now, because I’ve been able to really break down these songs and listen to how beautifully arranged they are,” she says. “You’ll go from a 4/4-type signature to a 6/8 all of a sudden. It’s very theatrical and melodic, and it’s heavy. So it’s beautiful. And I’m using my double-bass drum pedal, and it’s been a long time since I’ve done that.”

MORE ‘SLITHER’

Tei says the Sabbath show is an intentional detour away from Mad Cat Live’s most recent production in July dedicated to the laid-back harmonies of the Eagles album “On the Border.”

The idea to try heavy metal came to him one day as he and musicians Fritz Dorigo, Darren Bruck and Jim Camacho were fooling around with Kiss’ lumbering “God of Thunder.”

“I started thinking we should do something more bombastic and thunderous and really tap into metal. I immediately thought of Sabbath, and I immediately thought of this album,” Tei says of “Vol. 4,” best known for the vulnerable ballad “Changes” and the muscular “Snowblind.” The album, produced at the peak of the band’s hedonistic excesses, is sometimes called “the cocaine album” by fans.

Tei came up in the Miami punk scene at a time when “metal” was associated with bands with embarrassing hair, and he hated it. He grew to admire Ozzy Osbourne, the solo artist, especially the album “Speak of the Devil.” More than two decades passed before he discovered Black Sabbath’s “Vol. 4.”

“I said, ‘Holy [expletive] [expletive], this album is so much better than anybody knows or talks about.’ It makes them special,” Tei says.

Tei’s vision for the Mad Cat Live band’s interpretation of the album is admittedly abstract, a personal groove that melds Sabbath’s music with modern sound technology and more than 50 years of reinterpretation. He stopped one rehearsal because he found the band’s version of “Tomorrow’s Dream” too sharp and polished, asking them to recapture the original’s muddiness and “slither.”

“A lot of it is about opening up doors and then showing people through them and encouraging them to bring it,” he says. “We’ve got time on our side, we have a keyboard player and all these talented musicians, so how can we reinvestigate ‘Changes’ and ‘Laguna Sunrise’ and make these pieces more fitting for where we are now? They don’t need to get caught up in what other people may have done with Sabbath or even what Sabbath themselves did with this album.”

The Mad Cat Live band will perform Black Sabbath’s “Vol. 4” 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 12-14, and 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15, in the Gleason Room, Backstage at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave. Tickets cost $15-$25. Go to MadCatTheatre.org.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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