Friends, this is old, but some of you might find it interesting. I had a new post set to go, but I somehow lost some of it–first time that’s ever happened with work on this site. So, I’ll use this as a space filler. These are words that have never been read, unless I gave a copy to Rhonda Fields, my dear friend with whom I saw the show. Much love, beauties; I’ll be talking to you in the morning.
(James Taylor’s “One-Man Band”
Makes Stop at Clay Center)
One goes to see a musical act in search of qualities that the group or artist in question possesses and puts forth in their/his/her songs and sounds. These qualities at times center on the actual sound, and other times they center on the message in the lyrics. Other times still, they center on the mood. Whatever they are, these qualities are what each audience member will use to gauge the success of the show.
This thought came to me as James Taylor played his second song of his “One- Man Band” performance Monday night at the Clay Center, the title track to 1988’s Never Die Young LP. The thought came to me then because that was when I heard the qualities I was looking for from the show. I was looking for what this song had, tone and clarity.
JT has a voice as sweet and rich as Mexican coffee, and whether an individual fan finds his enunciation or his smooth tonal shifts to be that voice’s most important feature, I think its clarity is what delivers all of the other features. But, still, that register so broad that, were he in a choir, the director might have problems deciding whether to sit James first tenor or first baritone.
These are the qualities that I heard in his voice as he sang that second song, after opening with the mega-hit “Something In The Way She Moves” from his eponymous 1968 debut on The Beatles’ Apple Records label. (Trivial fact to note: James Taylor was the first artist signed to Apple.)
In like manner, tone and clarity were the two qualities that greeted me when I turned my attention to his acoustic guitar playing. There, I found tones so soft and perfect they made me think that they would prove a nice warm place to rest, should one grow tired, sustain so smooth you could pour it over pancakes, and notes plucked so cleanly and distinctly—JT’s an acoustic flat-picker—that the manicurist of those nails could moonlight as a scalpel sharpener
James (I don’t think that any of us long-time fans can bring ourselves to call him “Mr. Taylor,” even in a review; he’s always been just “James” or “JT” to us.) is a songsmith, a troubadour who writes his poems to music and hits the road with a guitar to play for folks. I had seen three full band efforts and a six-string performance with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra prior to Monday’s show. Still, in that moment, watching him and listening to him, I realized that this show was essentially no different than those because, despite the large groups I’d seen accompany the previous performances, for the fans it all boiled down to James, JT, and how clearly he was singing and how cleanly he was playing.
So, a song and a half in, and I already knew my angle: I would center my thesis on tone and clarity.
But then the third song, “The Frozen Man,” from 1991’s New Moon Shine, came along, but it didn’t do so until after a lengthy introduction, complete with pictures on the projector. Selecting the different images from a laptop that sat on a small table beside his mic stand, James told us about William James McPhee, “born in 1843 and raised in Liverpool by the sea,” whose body was discovered frozen and restored more than 100 years after his death.
And even before he began to play the song he wrote, in which he supposes what it would be like for Mr. McPhee if he weren’t really dead, and had to deal with life 100 years after one he was supposed to have lived it, I witnessed one of the other things that we take from the JT show, the man’s sheer genuine nature. Here was old JT just geeking out. It was just as if we were in his den and he was using PowerPoint to show us some of the cool things he came across when he was at the library. Because that’s what it was: James had us in his house, and he was going to take us on a little journey through some of the sights of his life.
That’s just what he did. Along the way we got pictures of his parents, his nephew, James, for whom he wrote “Sweet Baby James”—written when he was on his way to see the little boy for the first time, after getting back from Europe and the Beatles and the recording of the first album—and friends and early collaborators, Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Along with this, we got back story and life history that tied the images to the songs.
So, it was settled for me; there were three things I needed to think the concert a success: tone, clarity, and the charm of a genuine person.
And what about the songs to which he tied those stories and images? What does a man who has produced 16 studio disks over 38 years play? Further still, what does he save for his encores? Well, he plays a lot of hits and a few surprises, and he saves a couple of hits, and then a surprise.
After “The Frozen Man,” he grouped the classic “Country Road,” from the cornerstone 1970 album Sweet Baby James, with three newer tunes, the First Gulf War protest song, “Slap Leather,” also from New Moon Shine, and “Mean Old Man” and “My Traveling Star,” both from his latest disk, 2002’s October Road.
These songs led up to “You’ve Got A Friend,” from 1971’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, before he closed the first set with a typically rousing rendition of the concert staple “Steamroller,” also from Sweet Baby James.
During the second set, he played songs from 1997’s Hourglass, for “Line ‘em Up,” 1976’s In the Pocket, for “Shower the People”—one of two songs on which he was accompanied by members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, via video—1972’s One Man Dog, for one of the surprises, “Chili Dog,” and 1977’s JT, for “The Secret O’ Life,” a song that alone was worth the $60 ticket for a second balcony seat. He also revisited Never Die Young for “Valentine’s Day” and Sweet Baby James, for the title track, prior to closing the second set with a flawlessly crisp and tender version of “Carolina In My Mind,” from the first album.
But the Clay Center crowd wasn’t through with its JT just yet. No, we’d been waiting a long time for his return to Charleston, and we were going to impress it upon him to play as long as he was willing to play.
James didn’t disappoint, coming back for an encore that included what is arguably his biggest hit and most widely-recognized tune, “Fire and Rain,” making it four songs from Sweet Baby James, and “Copperline,” the third tune from New Moon Shine.
After another standing ovation, he returned for one last song, treating us to what I thought to be a pleasant surprise in “You Can Close Your Eyes,” from Mud Slide Slim.
Despite being billed as a performance by “a one-man band,” James was accompanied on piano by Larry Goldings on what I believe was every song except for the first and last of the evening. It isn’t by oversight that I wait until now to mention Mr. Goldings; rather, the inverted pyramid requires the writer to mention things in descending order of importance, and this seems to be about where Mr. Goldings fits. That is to take nothing away from the man’s obvious talents and impeccable sense of time; it’s just that he was the only other man on a stage with James Taylor. All he really needed to be was dependable and serviceable. It didn’t matter who he was; heck, I could have been up there (and I play real good) and it wouldn’t have made any difference. The crowd came to see JT.
Now, after this jumbled mess and stack of statistics, I realize it’s about impossible to capture a thesis when writing about a James Taylor performance. It would be disappointing if the tones were off or if the sounds weren’t clear. It would be disappointing if James didn’t have all of his usual charm and humility, that of a man who, after all of these years and shows, still seems at times like he can’t believe people will pay to see and hear him do what he does. It would be a letdown if he didn’t have that slight nervousness of a man who is excited to share something neat with us, something keen. But it isn’t as if we’ll ever have to deal with such disappointments. It’s James.