13THFLOOR.CO.NZ — James Taylor – Vector Arena February 4, 2017
Liz Gunn shares her thoughts on James Taylor’s concert, last night at Vector Arena…
“This is our first gig of our Down Under Tour. What a wonderful way to start the tour!” said the very tall, ever-slim and self-effacing James Taylor to his appreciative Auckland audience of largely baby boomer generation at Vector Arena last night. The love was mutual.
Taylor is one of the best-selling music artists of all time with over 100 million records sold and the first non-British signing by the Beatles to their Apple label, back in the day, after Paul McCartney was bowled over by the heart in his writing and his mellifluous vocals.
The first thing that hit me, hearing him live, is how fully he has retained those dulcet tones which are the hallmark of his singing, right through his now 68 years. It’s a voice that has an almost unnerving youthful quality to it, and in only one song did I detect any strain negotiating the higher notes. For many of the songs, it was as pure as the vocalising on that huge hit album Sweet Baby James which was received as a folk-rock masterpiece and sold hugely when it was released in February 1970.
For a career to span that length of time, and to be able to fill a large arena like Vector (with upper levels curtained off) is a huge feat. And a reflection of his unquestionable talent. It’s not just the effortlessly tuneful soulful voice, but also an endearing, even slightly goofy charm, and an ability to connect with his audience with humour and a quiet humility, in between the songs while he changes a series of acoustic guitars. He seems to warm the audience as much with his joking asides as with the relaxed vocals. “ Here’s a Buddy Holly tune” he intoned before his second song,” which we like to do with some frequency, if not every day” and he launched into -what else?- Every Day.
In one of his later asides he promises that the night will include “ ..some new tunes”. A pause. Then with that self-effacing sweetness, “Not many. And we’ll get it over with quick. It’s like taking off a band aid- just get it over with quick” . The audience laughed and breathed a sigh of relief. They have come for the hits that have served as part of the musical backdrop to their generation, and most want that dish warmed up and served again.
I wondered, in spite of the laughter, whether that is what James Taylor the Artist also wants in his heart of hearts? How do you sing the same songs- as beautifully lyrical as they are- night after night, tour after tour, for forty-plus years, and still keep them fresh? It’s like asking a great actor to come on stage every night for over four decades to deliver the same play, the same lines, and each night present the play as if it’s the first time it has been performed. Even the greatest, most in-this-moment kind of performer could struggle pulling off that feat.
And the bigger question is whether it feeds the soul of the artist who might feel caged by the very success that has brought him the audience adoration. I suddenly understood why Bob Dylan refuses to be snagged by his own success and simply performs what he wants, with no catering to audience expectations. I suspect James Taylor is too empathetic a character to disappoint his audience expectations thus.
That said, where JT (or Stringbean as is his other nickname) seemed to me to really glow in his performance, was with his most recent material. He said it would be like the pain of a bandage being pulled off but I found it quite the opposite.
Beautifully worked, sung from his heart, with his total engagement in the meaning and the lyrics, these latest songs will stay with me long after last night’s show. Today Today Today is from Before This World, his 16th album and the first in 13 years. It acknowledges his own surprise that he is still here. In his introduction to the song, he tells us it harks back to his original signing to Apple in 1968 after auditioning for Paul and George when the Beatles were at their zenith.” I was like a chiuawawa on methamphetamine” he quips, but then counters with “ It was like someone opened a door and my life was on the other side of it” . A heart-melting image.
What human could not relate to that? The dream of living a life doing the thing that makes your heart sing- and in the case of JT, has made the world’s heart sing for decades? The song has a little country feel to the folk-rock descending scale of major to minor notes. But perhaps it’s his delivery of the lyrics that most touches me: The bell is about to ring/The big girl she’s about to sing/Today, today, today/The world will open wide/And I’m running with the tide/It’s time to cut this side/And I must not miss my ride/Somehow I haven’t died/And I feel the same inside/As when I caught this ride/When first I sold my pride/The way ahead is clear/My heart is free from fear/I’ll plant my flag right here/Today, today, today.
That line ’Somehow I haven’t died’ refers to the relentless struggle he faced for much of his early career, marred as it was by a ferocious and voracious heroin addiction which eventually cost him his marriage with Carly Simon. Even his friend John Belushi expressed his concern to Taylor at JT’s self destruction in a warning that was eerily prescient for Belushi himself.
Taylor today seems in a calm, good-humoured and contented space, and from this fullness, is happy to give of himself to his loyal audience. He spent the entire 20 minute half time break sitting on the edge of the stage greeting fans and then jumping down for photos as more and more gathered around him. Something I have never seen at any concert. Tremendously endearing.
During the first half of the show he had served up those big hits, ranging from Country Road with his capacious lungs holding the final note impossibly long (perhaps a breath-controlled nod to his opera singing mother!), to Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight– the only song I felt would have been better in a lower key for his warmed-honey tones which don’t need to be asked to strain for any note.
There were two songs about his much-loved home state of Carolina- Copperline (the perfect key for his voice and a beautifully understated arrangement) and Carolina On My Mind, the song he wrote in an overwhelming homesick patch in 1968 at Apple Studios even though he was “surrounded by this heavenly host of musical angels who were making the White album” because “I missed my family” (an audible sigh of adoration from many of the mothers in the crowd! No wonder his female fan base is so strong). It was a very slow version of the song, almost soporific, but fitting for a song of sadness and longing. Personally I would have liked it pacier, and he still needs to feel that raw heartbreak of sickening home ache EVERY time he sings it, if he wants the full beauty of the lyrics to land right inside the heartspace of his audience.
He cannot sing in a perfunctory way without compromising the very power of his own song writing. Although his voice can carry much, it needs the emotion behind it to penetrate and thereby make his songs rise from ‘good’ or even ‘great’, into the stratosphere of ‘special’. Perhaps my favourite of the first half was Sweet Baby James from the eponymous album. A lovely introduction on the guitar and his voice simply stunning in its flow.
No, I am mistaken. The absolute high point of the night for me, followed that song. It was Shed A Little Light , with words so needed in today’s Trump Era, that I am including them at the end of this review. Powerful and moving.
The second half had highlights from his back catalogue including You’ve Got A Friend and Up On The Roof. Yet again, though, the high point of this half was his newer work, a song written in a friend’s cabin in Montana. The rendition was fresh and deeply-felt in the way JT sang, and I recommend listening to the lyrics of Montana. And you could listen to another from his latest album, called You and I Again. He introduces it as “ A new love song but not a song about new love. It’s about love over time, maybe even more than one life time”. I wonder to myself if lines like this are a reference to his third wife: cause I can’t escape this feeling/that we’ve been this way together, you and I.
Therein lies the key to James Taylor. He writes and sings songs from his life. Songs of his heart. Songs looking for answers and finding reasons. He has given the world songs that touch lives and made Taylor Swift’s parents give her that Christian name. He writes songs to say “Let’s care for one another”. And he shows it in his way with people. I include below, a backstage photo taken last night with two friends, Anna and Braydon. Note JT’s open arms. The human touch. That is the hallmark of his music.
My wish for James Taylor is that he find renewed reasons to offer up those songs that reflect him now, today, and to trust that the audience will love those as much as they love the songs that remind them of their youth from these last four decades. For me, those latest songs took the show last night from ‘good’ to ‘great’.