In an interview to promote his Perspectives concerts as part of the 120th anniversary celebration of New York’s Carnegie Hall, James Taylor remarks how the current state of the music industry, impacted as it is by decreased album sales courtesy of illegal downloading, has seen a change in fortunes for the musicians who sound great in live performances. In the age of Autotune and extensive remastering, it’s easy to be a popular artist that cranks out a #1 record without having the live show stamina and charisma to earn their keep on the road. However, for artists who cut their teeth in an age when studios didn’t have the same arsenal of computer tricks, the live show was an art form, and not just a ritual to proclaim the coming of the next album. It’s been decades since James Taylor released a “hit”, but what he’s done instead, in fact what he’s been doing his entire career, is practicing the good ol’ fashioned art form of the live show. Thus, as you might imagine, when you put a practiced and traveled musician in one of the best music venues in the country, you’re going to get a fantastic show with great sound.
James Taylor outdoes the imagination.
Sitting atop a stool in the middle of the Carnegie stage with his guitar, a bottle of water and the set list scrawled on a chalkboard tablet large enough for the front row to read, Taylor engaged the audience with a deluge of music unfettered by an agenda of album promotion or greatest hits inclinations. The selection certainly touched on the favorites, but mixed within a respectable list of sentimental choices and some friendly audience chatter. Taylor’s long career has left him with stories of hustling into the recording booth at Trident Studios in Europe during the breaks the Beatles would take when recording their White Album or his memories of Nixon’s impeachment and his long walk of shame to the helicopter as he shook the hands of the White House’s many attendees. He recalls Nixon’s hunched walk, which lacked the regal photogenic qualities of a nation’s leader and reminded him instead of one of the penultimate stages in the classic “Evolution of Man” image. That long path Nixon walked, bordered with all of the staff, would go on to inspire the song “Line ‘Em Up”.
The evening’s first half had a lively and spontaneous tone, with Taylor playing more upbeat songs and having what passes for a conversation between a man on a stage and enthusiastic fans in the seats eager to hear certain songs, even responding to the occasional profession of love by joking, “I love you too, man. I just can’t figure out. Maybe it’s best we never met.” For other shouted song requests Taylor played them off with good humor and dove into a songwriter’s lament of really only having written 15 songs, but having written each 10 times each. It’s a modest statement, but if James Taylor has only written 15 songs in his career, it makes you wonder how many unique songs your average artist today could really claim to have recorded.
Talking further about his songwriting, he mentions how certain songs, which can take a musician “longer to play, than it did to write”, haunt them throughout their concert careers with everyone asking to hear it, referring in this case to “Steamroller”. As a parallel, during his final two songs in the encore, he recalls how “You’ve Got a Friend”, his cover of Carole King’s hit, has become a similar case of replay anxiety ever since he rushed home from the Troubadour Café to learn it after hearing it on the radio in what he guesses was one of the first few times it was ever aired. You can’t control which songs your fans love to hear, but when you cover a song by Carole King, you shouldn’t be surprised. He isn’t.
Joining him onstage, Andrea Zonn, Arnold McCuller, Kate Markowitz, David Lasley, and Caroline Smedvig Taylor acted as his vocal accompaniment with Larry Goldings (piano, organ, keyboards, accordion), Jimmy Johnson (electric bass), Chad Wackerman (drums), Luis Conte (percussion) and Michael Landau (electric guitar(s)) as the instrumental support to James’s own guitar. As a special treat, Walt Fowler joined in on the horns, and Lou Marini of Saturday Night Live fame offered up a few great saxophone solos here and there.
The concert consisted of a 20-song set split into two 10-song halves with a 20 minute intermission, the point of the latter amusing Mr. Taylor with him telling the audience, “Talk amongst yourselves, and we’ll go backstage and watch the clock.”
If ever you should have the opportunity to see James Taylor in concert, make sure you do so. The man is a testament to a golden era of live music, and should you be so lucky to catch him in a place that fully captures his music and puts it at its best, like Carnegie Hall, you’ll be witnessing an act of greatness.
Set List – Part I
“Something in the Way She Moves”
“Line ‘Em Up”
“Your Smiling Face”
“My Traveling Star”
“Carolina in My Mind”
“Up on the Roof” (The Drifters cover)
“How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)”
Set List – Part II
“Western Plains (When I Was a Cowboy)” (Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter cover)
“(I’m A) Road Runner” (Junior Walker and the All Stars cover)
“Circle Round the Sun”
“Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”
“Sweet Baby James”
“Fire and Rain”
“Shed a Little Light”
“You’ve Got a Friend” (Carole King cover)
“You Can Close Your Eyes”
By Lex Walker