Friday, August 24, 2007 performance reviewed by Ronald K. Baker
The unseasonably cool weather lurking in the Berkshires for a week or so gave way to the warmth of a typical summer day as the overflow crowd gathered for Lenox’s favorite son, James Taylor and his keyboardist accompanist, Larry Goldings. As concert time neared many on the lawn and near the shed were seen covering themselves with insect repellent. Indeed there was a hatch of tiny flies with clear wings falling like rain out of the early evening sky. Their numbers seemed endless. They were more of a nuisance than a threat. They didn’t bite. Happily they seemed to go away as the music started.
Taylor received a warm welcome which tapered off rapidly as he took to the stage. He donned his familiar acoustic guitar from which every note emanated in sparkling clarity. “Something In the Way She Moves” was fairly close to the original version, both pensive and passionate, as the artist’s signature sound of fluid finger picking joined with seemingly effortless vocals. Taylor described the concert as “the rare blessing of a ‘home game.’”
Goldings joined in on the second selection, “Never Die Young,” and made quick use of the string bass synthe attached to the grand piano with an evocative pedal point sustenuto which swelled voluminously toward the end of the piece. Then he accompanied Taylor on a jazz composition, “I Was an Old Man,” wherein Goldings got to stretch out with a groovy solo played masterfully. The two proceeded to read each other’s mail for the rest of the concert. They were indeed as close as one could imagine to the concert’s “One Man Band” title belying the relative newness of this approach on both their parts.
With lengthy introductions in conversational manner, James Taylor showed his consummate ease and grace on stage. But he was put on notice early that Tanglewood, with its legions on the lawn, perhaps lacked some of the intimacy he’d presumed. Some in the crowd boisterously hollered that they couldn’t hear him. He seemed quite taken aback and vowed immediate action. He began to enunciate more clearly as sound technicians doubtless scrambled to ratchet up the system. As the first set came to a close it seemed curious that there had only been six musical selections. There were too many stories, anecdotes, and accompanying photos projected up on the big video screens. This had some patrons shifting nervously on blankets and in chairs as they waited anxiously for the next song.
Seeing and hearing Taylor’s much touted drum machine elicited a new sympathy for the Luddites of old. This infernal machine was almost eerie to behold with its mechanized arms hitting actual drums while huge wooden barrels rolled along in place. But that was not the technical coup de grace of the evening. After 16 members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus appeared on screen singing background parts along with the live music, Taylor’s entire band joined in, courtesy of audio and video recording, for the immensely popular “Mexico” piece. The artist himself described this synergy as an elaborate “Karaoke” exercise. And they pulled it off flawlessly. No mean feat given the vicissitudes of live performance and the constraints of canned stuff.
As far as memorable moments, there were regrettably too few. Certainly one can understand his need to vary his presentation to some degree to keep it fresh. But shouldn’t the songs go pretty much the way we’ve come to love them? It’s unfortunate to hear the classic favorites sound more like someone doing a tribute to James Taylor than his own world class versions. In his effort at variation he comes perilously close to becoming a caricature of himself on over stylized occasions.
To quote lines from his song, “That’s Why I’m Here,” we “pay good money to hear Fire and Rain again and again and again.” Hey James, please don’t forget that’s why we’re here too. Dance with the gal that brung ya.
Somewhere in the process of six plus encores JT found a way to let it all hang out. Before all was said and done, gimmicks and all notwithstanding, we got what we came for. I may have missed Haight Ashbury ’68, and Woodstock, but I saw James Taylor at Tanglewood the summer of ’07. Sweet Baby James.