As my high school graduation gift, I got to see him in concert. That was it, I'd thought--a one-time-only deal. Not only was it a truly uncommon event for us to brave the traffic and massive crowds that such a big artist draws to an arena, but that concert was--and I do not throw terms around like this lightly--one of the highlights of my life. How could we possibly go back?
I'd find out awfully soon. I'd been gifted with six tickets to see James Taylor in concert for my birthday.
I will admit, my initial reaction was a mixed one of awe, excitement, and caution. I'm still as big a fan as I ever was--there's no way I'd turn down another chance to see him in concert. And to have six tickets--one for me, one for my mother (which was part of the agreement, and I wouldn't have had it any other way), and four for whomever I liked--gave me the opportunity to share the event with four people who weren't able to go the first time around: my father, my sister, a family friend, and my wife (who was a total stranger at the time and would have raised some interesting issues with my then-girlfriend. But I digress).
Still, I was a little cautious. I've liked or loved every one of his albums I've heard, but the last decade or so had me worried a little bit--James Taylor at Christmas, One Man Band, Live at the Troubador, Covers, and Other Covers were nice enough (or what I'd heard from them, at least), but the trend I was seeing suggested to me that JT was slowing down and phasing himself out.
James Taylor is no stranger to covering other people's songs, but he's usually good for all-new material at least once per decade; two rounds of covers, a Christmas album with familiar favorites, and two live albums seem to indicate that you're at a point in your career where you've given up on songwriting for yourself altogether. In video game terms, this would roughly be the equivalent of porting and re-releasing all the same games for ten years without making any new ones, and that's when your fans assume your series has already come to an end.
The kicker here was that, in the songs I'd heard, I had noticed JT suddenly sounded older. This is a man who usually sounds like his voice hasn't aged a day since 1968, but I kept hearing mushy enunciation in his newer recordings that only served to solidify the idea in my head that the years had finally caught up with my favorite artist, and that it wouldn't be long before he'd hang up his guitar and retire from the music scene entirely.
Clearly, I am a fool. The James Taylor I heard in concert had even more energy than when I saw him the first time. This sixty-something-year-old man was literally hopping around the stage with outstretched leg and guitar in hand, sounding exactly like he did in 1968. If artists such as Pete Seeger and B.B. King can continue performing well into their 70's and 80's and 90's, then you really are only as old as you feel--to heck with the legal retirement age. James Taylor was up on stage with his band, having the time of his life.
If my blogging buddy Alex comes back this week with a post bemoaning the fact that he was unable to attend the concert with me, do have sympathy on him--the concert was fantastic--but do bear in mind that he saw Paul McCartney without me before you rule out rubbing it in a little.
Like before, we were seated on the hilly lawn of an outdoor arena. A little too far to throw your undies onstage, but close enough to still see all the action. Big screens were present to watch the live camera feed. I divided my attention about evenly between the screen and the stage; even if I had been in the front row, I would've looked up at the screen from time to time to catch the angles and closeups I'd've otherwise missed. Heck, we even looked away for a few moments to watch the technician walking around on the roof of the enclosed part of the arena--"Looks like he can't find a seat," we joked.
Other folks were walking around down where we were sitting--if you've never been to an arena with lawn seating, the performance (at least in my experience) is really more like an outdoor party with live music than a true concert. The sea of humanity around us was damp with booze, and there's no doubt that helps explain why people were occasionally standing in the way and TALKING TOO LOUDLY. We didn't pay to see James Taylor and Band Plus Noisy People Up Front, but at the same time, Noisy People Up Front probably didn't pay to attend a lawn party with us Crotchety People Who Want to Sit Quietly.
A little more common courtesy and situational awareness on the part of some other folks wouldn't have hurt, but what helped more was keeping in mind that this wasn't just about seeing and hearing this performance; it was about setting up camp on the lawn and lying down in the September (well, June) grass with a loved one and sharing the experience. Seeing James Taylor was great. Seeing him with friends and family was better, no matter who that complete stranger was who stood in front of us for half a minute with no other apparent intent than standing in front of us.
What was striking about the concert was that JT wasn't just doing all the hits, or all the songs from his latest album. It was as though he and the band looked through his entire catalog, picked out one song from each album that they felt like performing, and put together a setlist. At one point, some of the audience members up front were shouting out the names of songs they wanted to hear, and JT paused to pick up the big slate at his feet, saying, "Yep, that's on the list." Another name was shouted. "Yep, that one's on the list, too. We've got you covered," he said with a smirk.
Lo and behold, there were "Mexico" and "Fire and Rain" and "Shower the People," along with "Country Road" and, most important of all, "Sweet Baby James." Yet, there was no real buildup of anticipation for the songs everyone knows and expects, and there were even a few songs such as "Walking Man" that are on every Greatest Hits collection that never made an appearance. But, the concert was stronger for it. JT wasn't resting on his laurels and only giving the fans the songs they expected to hear; he had total ownership of the concert and played whatever the heck he darn well pleased, which frequently included the songs fans expected to hear.
It became clear to me that all these live albums and cover songs of the last decade aren't an indication that James Taylor is on his way out--they're an indication that the man already has plenty of material to perform, and he's simply enjoying performing it. As the story goes, ex-wife Carly Simon gave James the choice to save their marriage by cutting back his focus on music and performing, and his response to her ultimatum was the album Dad Loves His Work. If there was one thing that was abundantly clear during this concert, it was that Dad, without a doubt, loves his work.
On stage with JT were backup singers and instrumentalists who were apparently famous but whom I did not recognize (including saxophonist "Blue Lou" Marini, Jr.). James' introductions of the band members throughout the show were entertaining, because virtually everyone was a "legend," or at least a "maven." I don't recall much storytelling between songs the first time I saw him in concert, but this time around he was taking his time with the pace of the concert, slowing down to elaborate on the backstory of some songs and crack jokes about others.
He spoke about how "Sweet Baby James" was a cowboy lullaby to a little buckaroo, sweetly conveying the message, "goodnight, ya little varmint." When explaining the National Geographic inspiration for "The Frozen Man" (another one of my all-time favorites of his), he challenged himself to see how many times he could use the word "permafrost," being sure to interject it as often as possible. When closing out the first set with the whimsical "Sun on the Moon" (with lines like, "Me and my flea we were down by the water / Fell in a hole with Superman's daughter") he advised the audience not to think too hard about what the lyrics meant--he'd given up trying to figure them out a long time ago.
One of the greatest surprises in the concert was at the beginning of the second set. The band was reassembling onstage, and JT recounted how he was on the phone earlier with his brother Livingston, found they were both in town that evening...and invited him onstage for a duet, right there in front of us. For a few minutes, there was a fascinating interplay of two voices so tonally similar yet so distinctive--Livingston a little lower and a little more rugged; James a little higher and a little warmer. I don't even know if they'd had a chance to rehearse together, but it didn't matter--these two grew up singing together, and it was like flipping a switch to put them in duet mode. Truly something.
Livingston joined up with the backup singers for the end of the concert, which capped off the evening with a few unexpected tunes, including a cover of "The Twist" (which had us all standing up and twisting away on the lawn) and an oft-overlooked song from an oft-overlooked album by the same name, "That's Why I'm Here."
Oh, fortune and fame's such a curious game
Perfect strangers can call you by name
Pay good money to hear fire and rain
Again and again and again
Some are like summer coming back every year
Got your baby got your blanket got your bucket of beer
I break into a grin from ear to ear
And suddenly it's perfectly clear
That's why I'm here
Singin tonight, tomorrow, everyday
That's why I'm standing here
That's why I'm here
"The Twist" and "That's Why I'm Here." A letdown, perhaps, if you came to hear all the classics and expected something like "Steamroller" to finish the show. A fitting conclusion if you're having a blast watching your favorite artist have fun. I have no other explanation for his enthusiasm in jump-stomping with one last energetic strum of the guitar to end so many songs.
Yet...the concert didn't quite end there. One more encore. He'd played "Sweet Baby James" already in the first set, and I was glad to have a second chance to share that mother/son moment that perfectly ended that first concert. There wasn't anything specific I was hoping he'd play--I was just glad to have one more song.
His wife Caroline ("Kim"), who had been singing backup, came up alongside him to perform the only other song that could come close to being as meaningful a finale as "Sweet Baby James" was the first time around: "You Can Close Your Eyes."
It's the song that perfectly describes how I want to go out of this world, when the time comes: with memories of the good times we've had, and with something left behind for you to remember me by. The song that never fails to move me to tears with its beauty and hopeful, haunting reminder of how precious life is. The song I've sung countless times on car trips and at home, squeezing my wife's hand in the reassurance that despite everything we've been through, we are still here, and a part of us will always still be here no matter what happens.
There with my wife, beneath the stars, music echoing across the hill, time stood still again.
I wonder if someday we'll be able to see him in concert again, bringing along our hypothetical future children, and whether I'll have one more perfect memory of JT playing our song--whatever that song may be--just for us, at the finale.
Once more, for the chance to see my favorite artist in concert, and to share in that experience with my friends and family, I am exceedingly grateful.