A FAN’S NOTES
James Taylor with Jackson Browne
Ann and I spent a mellow, mid-tempo evening in the company of two seventies musical giants. Ann has always enjoyed James Taylor’s music and has previously seen him in concert. A few years ago we attended a scaled back Jackson Browne theatre show together. This hockey arena double bill, upper tier scrimmed, and originally scheduled for more carefree, pre-pandemic times, should have flipped headliners. We decided to buy tickets late last week. I thought the performance would make a fine finale to Ann’s May Day birthday and then Mother’s Day and, anyway, our faded social skills off the property require refreshing.
Neither sensitive wimp had anything to say to me during their primes. They sang from an easy listening place where I wasn’t. I’ve since come around more than a little bit, with caveats and conditions.
My nephew, 32 years my junior, dropped by for a visit on the weekend. He was going Monday night too. He asked me if there was a definitive James Taylor album he should be familiar with by curtain time. Ann would say Mud Slide Slim.
I said, “You know, he’s one of those guys where all you need is the Greatest Hits.” It’s a Boomer staple, on the same shelf as the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac.
The irony of James Taylor, singer-songwriter, is that three of his biggest hits are covers of the Drifters, Marvin Gaye and Carole King. They are low key love letters but he doesn’t inhabit them the way Aretha owns “Respect” or Joe Cocker owns “Darling Be Home Soon.” Then again, I can’t imagine anyone else covering his material like “Mexico,” “Fire and Rain” and “Country Road” except for maybe a drunken amateur in front of a midnight campfire.
Taylor took the stage dressed like Tom Joad in his rumpled Dust Bowl Sunday best. He is a strikingly tall man. Ann leaned into my right ear: “He was wearing the same clothes last time I saw him.” He showered the people with his greatest hits. All of them. While some of the arrangements have been changed from the overly familiar, his voice has not. Taylor confided that though he’s been clean for decades, he understood he performed for the majority of his audience, “people who are still fucked up.” Why, thank you, sweet baby James, I guess heroin and mental hospital stays combine to form a sort of grandfatherly clarity.
My nephew wanted to know about Jackson Browne. I said, “It took a while but now I really admire his songwriting. So, yeah, there’s definitely a couple of albums of his that are worth having.”
If Taylor is a singer-songwriter, Browne is a musician-activist. Being harangued by employers, politicians, priests, professors and California rock stars with one nostril never suited my temperament. To Browne’s credit he informed the audience that he’d been watching YouTube footage of himself for “research purposes.” He said his song introductions and explanations ran long and he ultimately told his video self to “shut the fuck up.” Amen, I’ve thought that for the longest time. Rumours from the last century allege he may’ve rehearsed that line on his various domestic partners.
The couple seated to Ann’s right asked her who Browne was, they’d never heard of him. They were younger than us, but, man, Ann and I looked way better, a bit more fashionable too. Buying a t-shirt at a show and then wearing it immediately at said venue is frightfully gauche. I whispered, “If ‘Doctor My Eyes’* doesn’t hook them, nothing can. They’ll think ‘Take It Easy’ is an Eagles cover.”
Following the 1979 “No Nukes” concerts in New York City, Browne tried to walk handsome and hot down E Street. “Boulevard” came out more John Cafferty and Beaver Brown than Boss. It will never, ever be mistaken for “Dirty Boulevard” by Lou Reed. Still, it’s got that crunchy Fender sound I love so much. Browne didn’t play it nor did he do his version of Little Steven’s “I Am a Patriot.” His more recent material, not that Ann and I had heard a note before last night, blended nicely into his set. “Downhill from Everywhere” from just last year rocked far beyond “Boulevard,” the road paint blurred.
Conversely, Taylor rued that his latest album, yet another American songbook syllabus, had landed in the marketplace “like a baby being thrown down a well.” Taylor, of all people, should’ve realized they’d all been done and redone; he’s been there before in so many understated and somnambulant ways. He did play one pleasant enough jazzy obscurity from the collection as the screen behind the stage displayed a Merrie Melodies cartoon about cats in college. Mercifully, he let those other old dogs lie and stuck to his own.
* If you’ve a proper stereo, I mean one with speakers that move air, blast this song, turn it up! I don’t know that I’ve ever heard such rich, fat production since. The piano and the congas sound fantastic. Jesse Ed Davis (Taj Mahal) on guitar; Crosby and Nash chiming in on the choruses. The lyrics are great, suicidal existential angst muted and fairy dusted by soaring music. “It’s later than it seems.”
meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of insufferable music snobbery since 2013. My novella Of Course You Did is my latest book. Visit www.megeoff.com to find your preferred format and retailer.