James Taylor has a reputation for being one of the music industry’s genuinely nice guys. He’s been around since the late sixties (signed by the Beatles to their Apple label in 1968) and is most famous for singing songs that he wrote more than forty years ago, so he could easily be a bit tired of it all by now. But the performance he and his band gave last night was full of passion and a musical energy that made you feel you were witnessing something quite special.
Of course the stage show was just that: a show. The introductions of his band members throughout the evening, followed by a hand-shake for each; the “can we squeeze just one more song in” panic at the end of the encore that was meant to convince us he had considered not singing How Sweet It Is or You’ve Got A Friend; the inter-song stories and jokes that he presumably tells every night: all of these things could have been annoying if it weren’t for the fact that it was clear that he and his band love what they do. He sang and played each song like it was still fresh to him, like he believed in it, like he wanted to give it his best shot.
His voice – that slightly nasal but sweet and soulful tenor – is pretty much the same as it was on those early recordings. His acoustic guitar playing is crisp and precise but so warm. Seeing him live, across two hours of performance, you realise just how varied his back catalogue is, ranging from straight folk to country to jazz, blues, soul and gospel and into the edges of rock’n’roll even.
Songs that I knew inside-out in my late teens – Fire and Rain, Carolina In My Mind, Something In The Way She Moves – were performed in a way that was true to the original recorded versions but loose enough to allow his fine and talented band express themselves musically, without ever drifting into self-indulgence. He played two sets (spending the 20 minute interval swamped by smartphone-wielding fans at the end of the stage, being so generous with his time and his smile) of which the first was definitely my favourite. It featured all of those songs that were on the “Best of…” tape that I listened to endlessly for a while around the time I was 16 or 17. The second set was more varied with stuff from across the rest of his career, including quite a few I wasn’t familiar with at all. But it was all good stuff and all enjoyable.
It dawned on me during the gig that he’s an even better songwriter than I had previously thought, with an ability to craft songs that are really accessible without being formulaic. I also realised that some of his lyrics that were probably lost on me as a younger man have taken on a whole new meaning to 38-year-old me with a wife and two kids. I really surprised myself by unexpectedly welling up as he hit the first chorus of Shower The People, a song that I paid little attention to twenty years ago.
He may not be quite as famous as Dylan, the Stones, Paul McCartney, Van Morrison and others of his era that are still touring, but he’s probably performing at a consistently higher standard than any of them while coming across as a modest, humble and (in the best possible sense of the word) nice person. I’m very glad I had the chance to see him perform in the flesh.
Here’s a lovely video of him performing Fire and Rain on the BBC in 1970.
And, from much more recently, and with the band that played in Geneva last night, here’s You’ve Got A Friend (written by Carole King). I have to say though that he was in better voice last night than in this video.