Monday, June 23, 2008

james taylor (and his band of legends) at the jones beach theater: guest review

following up on the great review of kate taylor's show last month, i now have the great pleasure of posting pat's review of james (a/k/a kate's big brother) taylor's performance at the jones beach theater in wantagh saturday night.

This past Saturday night I went to see James Taylor and his “Band of Legends” at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York. I have been a huge JT fan since 1976, when I was 13 and he was 28. By that time, I had just learned algebra and he had already released eight albums plus his “Greatest Hits.” Thirty-two years later, I can barely help my daughter with her math, but I know the lyrics to, oh, about 50 or 60 of JT’s songs. And my daughter, who is now thirteen, has been properly brainwashed by being around me - - and held captive on long car rides - - for many years and now knows the words to at least 10 or 15 songs (though she might not admit it to her middle school friends). In fact, “Sweet Baby James” could have been written for her.

I am the biggest JT fan I know . . . personally, that is. There is a great unofficial James Taylor website, which I periodically check out. In fact, after Frank posted my review of Kate Taylor’s show in May, I found out that the guy I had met there is “Bill,” who posts on that site and is a big fan of the Taylor family as well (Hey there, Bill!). So, when it turned out that I had to go to the JT concert by myself, I was okay with that, since these venues are always packed with JT junkies. I love seeing all the people tailgating and making a night of it!

The concert began at about 8:20 and James came out in his typically understated light blue long-sleeved button-down shirt and beige khakis. Over the course of the night, James introduced the other ten members of his band: Luis Conte (percussion), Lou Marini (saxophone), Jimmy Johnson (bass guitar), Walt Fowler (trumpet, flugelhorn), Steve Gadd (drums), Larry Goldings (piano and keyboards), Andrea Zonn (vocals, fiddle), Kate Markowitz (vocals), Arnold McCuller (vocals), and David Lasley (vocals). I don’t remember James introducing Jeff Babko but it is possible that he was there too.

James immediately explained that he and the other band members had spent some time last December in a barn in Western Massachusetts recording covers of other artists’ songs, so they’d be doing a bunch of covers at this concert. He didn’t say when the album would be released, but based on what I heard that night, it should be terrific!

They started out with “It’s Growing,” by the Temptations, and then “Get a Job,” by the Silhouettes, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed (probably because I had never heard them before and was not doing the comparison thing). Before the crowd got too restless, the band played James’ own “Country Road” to give us JT addicts a fix. Then came a wonderful folk/bluegrass instrumental tune called “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” played by Andrea Zonn on the fiddle. She was really amazing and you can tell that she, like the other members of the band, really love playing together.

Next came “(I’ve Got To) Stop Thinkin’ ‘Bout That,” one of James’ own songs which is always lively and upbeat. Looking around, it seemed that the crowd was enjoying the mixture of JT originals and his covers. “Wichita Lineman,” by Glen Campbell, and “Why Baby Why,” by George Jones, were the next two, and, again, were in keeping with James’s apparent desire to play great songs that most JT fans (at least this one) didn’t know.

When James introduced the next song by saying that it was from “Oklahoma!” I immediately smiled because I knew that his rendition of this song was one of the sweetest things I’d ever heard, having heard it at his “One Man Band” concert last year. “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” as sung by James, had a warm, mellow clarity and purity that is hard to describe. Since I love James’s voice no matter what he sings (his Christmas album gets a lot of play in my house, even though most of those songs are standards), I’d be happy hearing him sing out names from a phone book. But his slow and soulful “Beautiful Morning” could make even the biggest pessimist glad to be alive.

Okay. Enough with the sentimentality. Next came James’s version of “Everyday,” a Buddy Holly song that he first recorded for his 1985 album “That’s Why I’m Here.” It’s a happy song that always reminds me of my first year out of college, when I was living in a house in D.C. with three other recent college grads and life held so much promise. Ah, youth.

Then came the funniest part of the night. Beware: SPOILER ALERT - if you want to hear James’s jokes first yourself, skip this paragraph. So, James says something like, “This next tune is one that I first heard Carole King sing in 1905.” Laughter and clapping all around, as most of the crowd knew the song to which he was referring. “We were playing at the Troubadour together and as soon as I heard this song, I asked her if I could sing it. So I did.” Pause. Then with his signature deadpan: “’Course I didn’t realize that I’d be singing it every day for the rest of my life.” Laughter. “It’s kind of like a prison sentence. Doing the same thing every day. But here it is.” So, as always, James put his all into “You’ve Got a Friend.” I guess that is the mark of a true entertainer: you can go out, for eight or nine months at a time, year after year, decade after decade, and make the song you are singing sound exactly the same - and as good - as when you first recorded it 37 years ago. Amazing.

“You’ve Got a Friend,” has got to be some sort of junior high/high school/college theme song that can transport millions of listeners back to the exact day when “so-and-so” was “really there” for them. For me, it reminds me of a bike trip I went on during the summer after seventh grade, with my best friend Jill and 11 other teenagers, along with two “adult” leaders (they were the ripe old age of 21). For two weeks, as we traipsed around Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, an older girl named Ginny and her good friend went around singing “You’ve Got a Friend,” while our female leader played the song on her guitar. What fun we had, Jill and I. We still keep in touch, though I’m not as good about it as I should be.

The next two songs were “Mexico,” which is an old favorite, and “Shed a Little Light,” a relative newcomer, having been recorded in 1991 for the “New Moon Shine” album. I absolutely love “Shed a Little Light,” mainly because of the lyrics. If ever there was a song that was perfect for this promising time in the history of our country, this is it:

“Let us turn our thoughts today
To Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women
Living on the Earth
Ties of hope and love
Sister and brotherhood
That we are bound together
In our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children
Can grow free and strong
We are bound together
By the task that stands before us
And the road that lies ahead
We are bound and we are bound”
(Okay, so if I were a certain presidential candidate, I’d ask James to do a commercial for him using this song.)

Intermission came and went, and when the band returned, it played “Hound Dog,” written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It did not sound much like Elvis’s version but who cares - it was still lively and fun. Then the band played one of my favorites, “Only One,” which is a sweet love song from his “That’s Why I’m Here” CD. Then, right before James played “Walking Man,” he delivered another one of his corny one-liners: “This next one is a song about the fall of the year, but since we won’t be here in the fall, we’re going to sing it now.” Cute.

Next, the band played “Roadrunner,” by Junior Walker and the All-Stars, which, as I recall was a lively 50s-type song, followed up by the crowd-pleasing favorite, “Sweet Baby James,” which always reminds me of the JT concerts I took my daughter to year after year, before she had more important things to do. Boo hoo. Then came two more covers, “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” by the Dixie Chicks, which the crowd loved, and “On Broadway,” by the Drifters, which reminded me of Roy Scheider in “All That Jazz.”

The band moved on to “Steamroller,” a fun song that was a riot to watch. While singing out of the corner of his mouth, James screwed up his face so much that he looked much older than his 60 years. He seemed to have a lot of fun singing it, even if, at some point a while back, he made the decision not to sing the curse words that are in the version from his “Greatest Hits” album - a song I always had to fast-forward through when I had seven-year-old Katie in the back seat of the car!

No JT concert would be complete without “Carolina in My Mind,” “Shower the People,” and “Your Smiling Face,” three feel-good songs that had the crowd clapping and singing along. Although I did not know the woman next to me, by the time “Smiling Face” was over, she was yelping for an encore as loudly as I was whistling for one.

Of course, the band came out for the encore and played “Wait Til the Midnight Hour,” by Wilson Pickett, and then “Knock on Wood,” by Eddie Floyd. Considering that I’d never heard either song before, I enjoyed hearing James and his band do something new. The show ended with “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” a tune that had everyone up and clapping to the beat. Though I knew he wouldn’t play a second encore, and that the 26 songs he’d played were more than any fan could ask for, I could have easily stayed for another hour, listening to more of the tunes that James wanted to introduce to us junkies.

It takes a lot of guts to go out there and sing twelve new songs to old friends who love the familiar old tunes. But, just as I like hearing “new” news from old friends like my junior high school pal Jill, I think it’s great that James is excited about some new music and enthusiastic about playing it for us. And although I have to admit that I am waiting and waiting for the (unlikely) announcement that James will do a performance with the other talented members of the Taylor clan - sister Kate, brother Livingston, children Ben and Sally, and maybe even brother Hugh - I will, in the meantime, await the release of JT’s new and exciting CD!
update: check out jame taylor's appearance on elvis costello's spectacle program on the sundance channel!


johnking said...

I thought I was a big JT fan, I don't even hold a candle to Pat! It sounded like a blast...if you can only get him and Jimmy Buffett to do a duel concert I would be in musical heaven!

July 1 will be my first run in a month...

Scott said...

I'm not much of a concert goer, but I did go see JT a few years back at Tanglewood in the Berkshires. It was a very cool outdoor mellow concert.

Anonymous said...


Great review of the concert. Very exact with lots of details. I loved it and am going to see him again on July 4th at Tanglewood.


Anonymous said...

My wife is a great fan of JT. I was able to get her tickets to the show in Toronto on July 8 for her birthday. Although I am not able to join her, she is taking a friend and judging by the review she is going to LOVE it!

Anonymous said...

I travelled from the wilds of Northern British Columbia to see JT at Tanglewood last year...Carole's Cafe and The Bookstore are great stops in Lenox. Sunday he is in Calgary and I will gladly make the pilgrimage again. He is a fantastic musician and a wonderful person.