THEBERKSHIREEDGE.COM — James Taylor, for love of the Berkshires
By David Noel Edwards
Lenox — James Taylor has been carrying on a torrid love affair that’s been a public secret ever since his first Tanglewood performance more than four decades ago. His lover? The Berkshires and all the friends and neighbors who, along with Taylor, call the place home. They’re the ones who turned out on Monday, July 4 to hear Taylor’s annual summer concert at Tanglewood. Technically speaking, it was a lovefest.
As soon as Taylor walked onto the Shed stage, he removed his “lid” (his word for hat), and took a long, deep bow. And then another. The crowd cheered and rose to their feet. He doesn’t bow like that for any other audience, and they know it.
There’s certainly nothing new about popular music fans adoring the objects of their bliss. But not all pop stars return their fans’ affection the way James Taylor does, and few express it so openly.
Before starting the concert with his latest arrangement of “Something in the Way She Moves,” Taylor goofed around unhurriedly to establish a light-hearted rapport with his audience, and he maintained an atmosphere of casual familiarity throughout the evening. It’s his way of setting the stage for the best possible James Taylor concert. His jokes about the newest songs in his set were hilarious: “I know you’re all saying: ‘No goddamn new music!’ but,” he explained, “it’s kind of like removing a band-aid: We’ve got to do, but it’ll be over before you know it.” Roars of laughter.
The new songs were fantastic, especially “Frozen Man.”
Taylor then held up a poster-sized set list and pointed to all the old hit songs he’d be playing during the evening. “I’ve anticipated your every need!” he proclaimed. Everyone laughed, but they knew he wasn’t kidding; Taylor arranges his sets not for the commonplace purpose of expressing himself but for the humble purpose of pleasing his fans.
The Band of Legends
Pop stars of James Taylor’s stature can attract and engage the finest musicians in the world. That’s what Taylor did decades ago, and many of his original band members still record and tour with him. This is why the Boston Symphony Orchestra bills Taylor’s concerts as “all-star” affairs.
This was the band’s lineup on Monday night:
Steve Gadd — drums
Jimmy Johnson — bass
Michael Landau — guitars
Larry Goldings — keyboards
Luis Conte — Latin percussion
Lou Marini — horns, flute
Walt Fowler — horns
Arnold McCuller — background vocals
Andrea Zonn — fiddle and background vocals
Kate Markowitz — background vocals
All of these musicians have online articles of their own. Check out their links.
Taylor’s wife Kim and son Henry helped out with background vocals on a number of songs, most notably “Shower the People,” and a few other numbers (like “Mexico”) that want extra voices in the choruses.
Keeping it fresh
James Taylor and band are experts at making old songs sound fresh. They’ve done it masterfully with the cover tunes Taylor is famous for i.e., “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” and they take the same approach with Taylor’s own songs. “Sweet Baby James” is a good example. Audiences around the world keep requesting it, so Taylor keeps the arrangement as fresh as he needs it to be to maintain his own sanity. This makes the song’s opening measures something of a mystery. But soon comes the payoff, that aha moment of recognition when Taylor sings, “There is a young cowboy . . .”
At this point, some folks cheer, others purse their lips and scrunch up their faces. An old man holds his breath and discreetly wipes moisture from his eyes.
“Steamroller Blues” sounds new every time Taylor performs it, because blues music is essentially improvisational: No two performances are ever identical. That’s what gives this song’s instrumental solos such searing intensity.
“Steamroller” made a strong impression when it first appeared on Taylor’s 1970 breakthrough album, “Sweet Baby James.” It’s been one of his concert standards ever since and is now a colossal, high-energy showstopper in Taylor’s live shows.
One could reasonably expect a performance of “Fire and Rain” to sound a bit stale in 2016. After all, the song is 46 years old, and Taylor gave the thousandth performance of it more than 15 years ago.
Taylor keeps his performances of “Fire and Rain” fresh by exercising a rare gift.
All musicians benefit from audience feedback, but James Taylor has his own way of working with an audience to inspire himself and shape his vocal performances in service to his fans.
In an NPR interview, Taylor described his approach to performing “Fire and Rain.” It starts with a connection to his audience:
“It helps,” Taylor said, “to have an audience there receiving it, because then you want it to happen for them, too.” He continued, “Making music for an audience is a communal process. And so, you know, they’re resonating with it, I catch that, too. That’s contagious.”
Of course, not every performer who says such things is capable of implementing these insights as effectively as Taylor.
We’ll never completely understand how he does it, but James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” vocal on Monday night was heartbreaking.
Something in the way he sings . . .
On any of his recordings, one can recognize James Taylor’s kindly voice in just one syllable. The timbre of his voice is that distinctive. But it’s just one ingredient in a cocktail of musical elements that we hear in every vocal performance he gives. The other ingredients are mysterious but almost quantifiable.
As a singer, James Taylor is so good that even if he weren’t a world-class songwriter — if he’d never written “Fire and Rain” or “Close Your Eyes” — he’d still have gotten hits with the innumerable cover songs he’s released over the last 40 years or so.
Why do so many people love James Taylor’s singing? For the same reasons they like Frank Sinatra’s singing. The timbre of Taylor’s and Sinatra’s voices matters, but the reason their vocal performances are effective is found in the musical choices they make as they navigate their way through a song’s verses and choruses. In other words, it’s all about their phrasing.
* * * * *
On Monday, July 4, as always, James Taylor’s Tanglewood audience came away satisfied. His love affair with the Berkshires and with the fans, friends, and neighbors who live there is unlikely to end any time soon. Certainly not within his lifetime.