.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Chasing The American Dream

March 09, 2006

SWEET BABY JAMES




He’s one of my all-time favorite artists. For 35 years now, I’ve been listening to his sweet folk melodies. I remember seeing this one PBS special, usually seen during pledge drives, where he sang acoustically in front of a small audience in a cozy theater-type auditorium. Every time I see that special I think to myself, “Man, I wish I could see him in that type of venue.” Last night I got my wish.

The tour is being billed as James Taylor - One Man Band because it’s just JT and keyboardist Larry Goldings. My expectations were really high and I must admit they weren’t quite met. Don’t get me wrong, it was a really good show. But the format was unique and not quite what neither the audience nor myself quite anticipated.

I think I can best explain it this way. When I saw Billy Joel, he mentioned that the concert was the second of two shows he played in Ft. Lauderdale. He said first one, he played many non-hits that had the audience dumbfounded and a little lost so he decided to play mainly hits for us so we could rock out. That’s about how I felt during a lot of JT’s show. Dumbfounded and a little lost. I mean, I’m a huge music fan and a big JT fan, but I didn’t recognize a song until his fifth number. This was the trend of the night and so I didn’t get to hear every classic JT song. But I did get to learn a lot about the origin and meaning of several songs that I might not have learned about had JT just sang hit after hit. Well before I go there, let’s back up to the beginning.

The stage and lighting were simple. A shiny black Steinway piano, several guitars leaning on stands, a microphone, and a stool. Out he came to a chorus of cheers from a mostly plus-40 aged crowd. He came out sharply dressed in a blue button-down oxford, a dark blaze, with a pair of pleated army-green slacks. He didn’t have much hair left. Long gone was the guy dressed in a peace T-Shirt, jeans, a mustache, and scraggly hair down to his shoulders. But thankfully, and amazingly, those unmistakable vocals hadn’t changed a bit in all those years.

Although the opening songs weren’t familiar, his light, mellow, soft-spoken vocals were. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized his opening song was “Something in the Way She Moves” (no, not the Beatles song) from his first aptly-named album James Taylor which was released in 1968. JT spoke to us afterward and told us “never die young.” He jokingly said he didn’t have to worry about that any more as he began to sing the song of that very same title.

After that song he told us of his idea of showing slides and telling stories that related to the songs he would sing. And that was really the theme of the night. Storytelling. I think it was more storytelling was more the focus and the songs sung reflected James’ choices. He told us the tale of “The Frozen Man” who supposedly was photographed by National Geographic after he was pulled out alive from a block of ice. It sounded more like a National Enquirer story. After the song was over, he said the real Frozen Man and motivation for the song was actually his father, a lover of tundra expedition. He showed us slides of his father from North Carolina and his mother from Massachusetts. And so we got to learn about JT’s life and insight on the songs he wrote.

As I said, it took until the fifth song until I recognized a tune. He sang "Country Road" not in the familiar tempo of the original, but more like a song that was sung like he was reading out loud, telling a story. We all new song eight. James showed us slides of the Troubadour Club in L.A. along with some very hairy band members back in the late 60s. He explained that he met Carole King there who insisted James sing a song she had written. The song was “You’ve Got a Friend.” JT ended the first 45-minute set with an electric guitar version of the bluesy "Steamrolller Blues."

I figured the second set would perhaps focus more on his popular hits but I was wrong. Once again, it took five songs for me to recognize one. Before the popular "Shower the People," James showed us slides and told stories of Richard Nixon, Reverend Sun Moon, Al Capone, and some obscure Hot Dog stand in L.A. called Pink’s that was known for its chili dogs. The lyrics of the songs he sang, of course, fit the slides.

He closed the second set with arguably the most interesting two stories of the night. For 35 years, I’ve thought the song “Sweet Baby James” was naturally about JT himself. But no. Check this out. JT explained that he was in England in 1968 and had just bought his first car and had it shipped back to the States to his home in New Jersey. He’d been gone from the States for a long time and missed his family. His brother’s wife just had a baby boy and they named him after James. Baby James. So James decided to drive down to North Carolina to visit his new nephew and decided to write a song for him. His first thought was sort of a western/cowboy ditty from the age of Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. Well, the melody didn’t quite turn out that way as we now know, but remember the lyrics? “There is a young cowboy, who lives on a range. His horse and his cattle are his only companions…” See? Interesting, huh?

Then he told us a similar story while he was over in England. He had taken a break and visited the small island of Formentera. While there, he met a girl named Karen whom he shared his family stories with. And although he had a great time with Karen, family stories made him homesick. That night, he wrote “Carolina in My Mind.” And so JT sang us the song. Again, not in the familiar refrain we were used to hearing, but more slowly more like the telling of the story. And honestly, I’m glad I learned the behind the scenes about those two songs. Different. Unique. Insightful. Kinda sums of the entire concert.

JT came back for an encore and sang us the long-awaited "Fire and Rain." No slides, no stories. And although the crowed tried to sing along, it was difficult because of the slow tempo in which he sang the song. That was supposed to be it but the cheers coaxed him into two one-song encores. An old Hoagy Charmichael tune called “The Newness of You” and finally, he closed with the familiar “Close Your Eyes.”

I don’t think there’s a more modest, soft-spoken, and mellow entertainer living today. He’s such a regular guy. There were times that I had to strain just to hear him speak over the laughter of the crowd as he told another of his dry sarcastic stories. And I guess that’s what the evening was all about. This night wasn’t about hits. It was about an artist’s wish to share a little insight into his life and music. So see? It was a good concert. It just wasn’t what I expected. In retrospect, I guess I could trade not hearing Up on the Roof, Handy Man, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight, Mexico, How Sweet It Is, or Copperline for the chance at learning some really cool and fascinating stories about JT’s life and songs. I may not have been the best concert I’ve ever seen, but it just may have been the most interesting.

12 Comments:

  • I LOVE JAMES TAYLOR. I think I was the only 18 year old college student in my dorms rocking out to James Taylor's greatest hits all the time. People made fun of me, but did I care? NO.

    It sounds like the concert was an interesting experience. I would have been a bit disappointed too, to not hear some of his more well known songs, but you took away a lot more than most people do going to an average concert.

    By Blogger girl from florida, at 10:27 AM, March 09, 2006  

  • I love hearing the backgrounds to songs, too. maybe the inspiration for Fire and Ice was just too painful, still? It is a personal story.

    Anyway, glad you enjoyed another great artist and glad you shared it in such a way that I feel I was there (sorta!)

    By Blogger Amy, at 10:55 AM, March 09, 2006  

  • Lucky you! I've always wanted to see him in concert. Sounds very interesting. Did he happen to share his personal struggle with being an addict? I saw an in-depth interview where he talked about drugs and what it's done to him.

    Thank you for that review. He truly is an amazing & talented musician.

    By Blogger catsteevens, at 4:07 PM, March 10, 2006  

  • James Taylor's Greatest Hits.

    Reminds me of high school and hoopties and friends I haven't seen in years.

    By Blogger Buffy, at 5:45 AM, March 11, 2006  

  • I would encourage you and your readers to surf on over to www.james-taylor.com for the definative JT webpage, and a Forum full of other reviews of One Man Band (including my own). The concert tour has changed little since your review...except you get Copperline now some nights in place of Nearness of You. I think you captured the essence of the night.

    SuperD

    By Anonymous SuperD, at 11:00 PM, April 20, 2006  

  • Hey, I enjoyed your blog about JT. Just came back from vacation in Berkshires and saw him at Tanglewood on 8/21. It was awesome, and I never felt like there was a song I couldn't sing along too. Especially liked the way he uses his backup singers. Found myself newly curious about the meaning of his songs,particularly after listening to Mud Slide Slim on the way home from Mass to New York for hours in the rain. Lots of contradictory messages - he liked the road and touring/didn't like it, is burnt out and lonely and yet happy too, a little. At the end he brought out his two twin sons - wow, I didn't realize he had more kids! He seems really happy, I'm glad he has found peace, after a rough start in life.

    By Blogger apple, at 6:37 PM, August 28, 2006  

  • Hmmm,well Todd,if, as you say "He’s one of my all-time favorite artists. For 35 years now, I’ve been listening to his sweet folk melodies.", how come you didn't recognize 10 of his songs? Or maybe you're one of those that he sings of..."fortune and fame such a curious game, perfect strangers call you by name, pay good money to hear Fire and Rain again and again and again".

    By Anonymous John B., at 2:40 AM, October 14, 2006  

  • You make a good point, John B. But I guess there are varying definitions of the word "fan." Elton John is my favorite artist yet I really don't care for his current music. I'm attached to his early stuff not only for the music but for the times and places I relate his music to. I guess the same can be said for J.T.

    By Blogger Plantation, at 2:58 AM, October 14, 2006  

  • JT's Song Fire and Rain is actually about a friend of his who died in a plane crash, the song was his reaction to the death of a dear friend.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:24 PM, October 18, 2006  

  • I just came back to this concert and have to say that this was one of the most intimate, pleasant, fun concerts I've been to.

    The closest show would be a sprinsteen show I saw in the early 80's. Not sure what your expectations really could be in a JT concert, but, I truly liked it and am more appreciative for his talent.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:36 PM, November 14, 2006  

  • Todd, please contact me about licensing your photo of James Taylor...urgent...thanks 323-856-0008

    By Anonymous T Steele, at 12:56 PM, August 23, 2007  

  • My husband & I just listened to One Man Band last night. James Taylor is my favorite and has been since the late 60's. You should read his bio book about his life that he wrote. It would give you a lot more info on his life and background on his songs. James is as handsome and funny as he ever was. I wish the DVD had shown him in his earlier days on the slides while he was singing the same songs thought and I found his foot trying to change the slides very distracting and the drum was weird. But all and all...I will play it again and again just to see and hear James.

    By Blogger sharon, at 7:13 PM, November 19, 2007  

Post a Comment

<< Home