July 4, 2005 performance, reviewed by Dave Conlin Read
(Originally published on NewBerkshire.com)
James Taylor made it all new again on the Fourth of July, casting a spell from the stage of the Koussevitsky Music Shed that carried the faithful legion back to where they’d first had love, or loss, or longing, or lonliness, made known to them alone in a room listening to a record.
While those emotions are at the core of Taylor’s catalogue of beloved songs, the whole point of crafting songs around them, and setting them to music, is to create another space where you can just get on with it.
And this Taylor did – big time – in a show that began with him casually walking onto the stage shortly after 7, unannounced, to sing the national anthem. A startlingly simple gesture that virtually cast a net over the capacity crowd that had been streaming onto the Tanglewood grounds throughout a perfectly splendid July afternoon.
In an instant, the picnics were put aside, frisbees fell on the lawn, the excited chatter stopped as everyone stood and sang along.
Then our host said, “Play Ball!” and the party was on, with the entrance of his teriffic band: Steve Gadd (drums), Jimmy Johnson (bass), Michael Landau (guitar), Luis Conte (percussion), Larry Goldings (keyboards), Walt Fowler and Lou Marini (horns), Andrea Zonn (fiddle & backing vocals), and Arnold McCuller and Kate Markowitz on backing vocals.
This is a cohort of happy campers, each of whom is an ace musician, and all of whom seem to be as happy to be at a James Taylor concert as anyone in the audience is.
Each was given a generous introduction at an appropriate segment in the 2½ hour show, usually timed to coincide with a song that showcased their playing.
In a show of highlights, one we especially enjoyed and which was a complete surprise, was a Celtic fiddle number by Zonn with bodhrain-sounding accompaniment by Gadd and Conte. It was so good that if you weren’t looking, you could’ve thought you were at a Chieftains concert.
To note the artful structure of the show – how the 2 dozen song setlist was arranged, the Celtic rave-up was preceded by poignant, harmonized, rendition of “The Water is Wide” and followed immediately by a funny anecdote about a friend of Taylor’s who saw Riverdance on a busted t.v. that showed only the upper torsos of the dancers.
Of course, you had to be there to get the joke, which was made when Taylor mimed the upper torso part of Celtic step-dancing. And that was just one of many bits of physical comedy; others were his bad-ass low-down guitar jams with Landau, pogo-stick bouncing, and during the knockout “Steamroller,” he went through such contortions that he looked like a mad Robin Williams imitation of himself!
Taylor likes to disparage himself by saying of his new material that it sounds the same as all the older stuff; does it? If it does it’s because he got a handle on something quite a while ago, something that worked, and he’s been working it – and working on it – ever since. And when he shares it with an audience, he’s got another attribute that sets him apart from his peers – a mastery of stagecraft that makes every performance a unique and especially memorable event.
He has been awarded all the prizes available to a popular artist: six Grammy Awards, more than 40 gold, platinum, and multi-platinum awards, an honorary doctorate of music at the Berklee College of Music, the 1998 Billboard Lifetime Achievement Award, and induction in 2000 into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
Now we’d like to propose that a new one be inaugurated in recognition of that element of a James Taylor concert that makes it nonpariel – his stagecraft. We’ve never seen a musician who is as entertaining between songs as Taylor is. (The only one who came close was the late Dave Van Ronk.)