By Chadbyrne Dickens
There are definitive moments in life where one is fortunate to witness the passing of the baton from one generation to another: a parent gifting a family business or teaching a child to bake apple pie or an older ballplayer taking a touted rookie under his wing. On Tuesday, July 2nd I witnessed such a baton-passing by one of the most heralded songwriters in musical history to his heir apparent only one-third his age. To appreciate music, one need look past the rhetoric, gossip and fanfare to dig deep into the meat and potatoes of the craft. Just as the producer’s mantra, “it’s all about the screenplay” has its place in making a quality film, musical musings can only be expressed or the meaning exposed, after the wordsmith has put the pen paper to shape a song. The Music Shed (summer home of the Boston Pops) in Lenox, Massachusetts was hot and muggy on this July night as much due to the weather as to the shared knowledge that we were witnessing a changing of the guard from one of the most brilliant lyricists in music history to a standard-bearer for the next generation.
James Taylor, 64, has been pleasing audiences for over four decades with his smooth delivery of classic rock and remains the definition of what an acoustic singer/songwriter should deliver. The troubadour has won 5 Grammy Awards, had a string of best-selling albums, and remains to many the face of 1970’s-America music. His greatest hits package alone from that era has sold more than 12 million units. Despite his success, Taylor continues his tradition of playing at the Shed (www.bso.org). His initial experience was in 1974, and summer 2012 marked his 21st appearance. Having been born in Massachusetts, he enjoys giving back to the local brethren by providing an exemplary music experience over the July 4th Holiday weekend. One may think that a man with his most commercially prolific days behind him would slow down. However, on this absolutely packed night, he played more like the cute youth with a full-head of hair adorning the cover of his first album than the paternal figure he currently aesthetically assembles. Unlilke today’s songwriters which rely heavily on style over substance, Taylor only need grab his six-string and share his voice to win over all within ear shot.
With a full band of veteran professional musicians in support, including legendary guitarist Dean Parks (of Steely Dan fame and who has been touring with Crosby & Nash the last few years), Taylor embarked on a musical journey represented by his extensive varied catalog. He dug in deep for obscure and gritty numbers like “One Man” and “Hey, Mr. That’s Me Up on the Jukebox” before reeling in the giddy crowd with the numbers any budding acoustic guitarist plays in every dive in the nation: “Carolina in My Mind” and “Country Road.” His voice hasn’t lost its innocence and this inexplicably still rings true despite the fact he has played these numbers endless times. From the poignant “Handyman” to the heavy blues tune “Steamroller”, Taylor reminds the mature crowd of the day when one could put in an album and forget about touching the needle – as every song was stimulating and a quality product. One would be challenged to choose just one song from a James Taylor album to download on I-tunes.
The crowd thoroughly enjoyed the first set on a most relaxing and fulfilling summer night. The sold-out show consisted of a calm lawn where families were strewn about on blankets enjoying laughter, a picnic meal, and perhaps a fine selection of wine (Tanglewood allows BYOB) while soaking in Taylor’s melodies. I can’t imagine a more satisfying summer night as the enormous crowd continued to mire in the trademark tune, “Sweet Baby James” with the requisite outpour of emotion and cheers at the lyric, “and so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston.” The local boy had come home again and his fans were eating it up. However, they were about to explode with unanticipated excitement.
James Taylor had announced on the playbill months before that there would be a special guest for each of his three night run at the Shed. However, the first night’s guest was never formally exposed. There were rumors abound, but it can be assumed few in attendance not 14 and female had the premonition that the guest would be the current most heralded woman in music. After a verse of arguably his most popular and touching tune, “Fire and Rain”, JT invited out the Pennsylvania Pop Princess herself, Taylor Swift. The tall Sparkly One, 22, wearing a demure yellow dress, graciously walked across the stage in slow-motion, taking over the song and the show. The entire pavilion immediately jumped up at her commencement and didn’t sit down, as she delivered the lead vocal for the rest of the song. For a woman who seemingly does everything right, the main critique directed at her sometimes is her uneven vocal talent. But on this night, she projected with an authority, clarity and nuance at the end of each stanza that I had never heard from her before. Whether she has sought further vocal training or not, her sound has vastly improved and thus now, may truly be an unstoppable force.
The buzz continued throughout set break as the mature audience discussed their witnessing the pop icon de jour in the flesh. Scattered about the venue were clusters of hysterical, screaming adolescent female fans, wearing the unofficial Swift costume (cowboy boots with dress) and her lucky #13 branded on their arms. Renewed by the euphoric glow from the crowd, James attacked the second set with more delights from his catalog including the brilliant love song, “Never Die Young” and one of his most up-beat and contagious songs, “Mexico” truly had the people dancing as the show entered its second hour.
Not surprisingly, Taylor Swift reappeared to a cacophony of maddening applause and delved into two of her own hit singles. With James Taylor by her side singing back-up harmony, Swift elegantly shared her recent hit, “Ours.” Due to her high-profile status, her glorification by an adolescent fan base, lyrics about puppy love and high school, and her model-like appearance, music lovers outside her fan base are quick to dismiss. To disregard Miss Swift without even listening to a tune, or dissecting a lyric, is truly doing one’s self a disservice. The top earner in the music industry in 2011 hasn’t won every single award one can win including the Grammy for Album of the Year, earning over $100 million from a sold-out 16 month 89-city tour, with no public missteps, by accident. Can 16 million Twitter followers be wrong? Sometimes one is contrarian, going against something popular because it’s not yet accepted as cool. Ultimately, it is not cool to claim to be an avid music fan, yet miss out on a genius of our generation due to pre-conceived notions. Those who love jam music usually also share an affinity for solo acoustic music. Similar to Emmylou Harris playing with Neil Young, Taylor honed her craft in Nashville, having played acoustic guitar for over 15 years already and her prowess with the pen is well documented, if not yet well known and touted in all circles.
Swift pranced about with her defined and confident stage presence singing about a relationship her parents didn’t approve of and that we all can relate to, “Seems like there’s always someone who disapproves, They’ll judge it like they know about me and you, And the verdict comes from those with nothing else to do, The jury’s out, but my choice is you.” With the crowd, full of adulation, still on their feet, Taylor segued into “Love Story” (the only song ever to be #1 on both the Top 40 Chart and Country Chart). Although more specifically geared to the pubescent set than most of her songs, one can only marvel at the brilliance of the lyrics. James Taylor even provided exquisite backup harmony with “You’ll be the prince and I’ll be the princess, It’s a love story baby just say yes.” The distinguished veteran and songwriting master, James Taylor, showed deference to his younger, but now more popular would-be protégé, further indicating even his respect for her abilities. Holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes, the Taylor duo mirrored a father and daughter sharing a joyous moment of mutual understanding. The ingénue received a standing ovation before darting off side stage-right, allowing the audience a chance to breathe. What the crowd probably didn’t know was that they experienced Taylor Swift’s only scheduled appearance for the entire year of 2012! (On 7/9 she announced another appearance at the I Heart Music Festival in Las Vegas for September and announced on 8/21 she will perform at the VMA Awards all in support of her new album, Red, set to drop on October 13th.)
James Taylor, the consummate professional and gentleman, took a moment to regroup before steamrolling forward to conclude an electric and emotionally-charged set. “Elvis just left the building. I really want to thank Taylor for taking the time out of her busy schedule to join us.” He still had some sparks set to fly of his own and belted out a rousing “Your Smiling Face” which unintentionally reminded all that he was writing flawless love songs long before T-Swizzle was even born. The now paternal-minded Taylor closed the set with a lesson within “Shower the People”: “Better to shower the people you love with love, show them the way that you feel, things are gonna be just fine if you only will.” The message of the song was apropos in an environment filled with families and familiar love. After a 27 song show, including “How Sweet It Is” and “You’ve Got a Friend” encores, James Taylor again won over the hearts of a packed Tanglewood house with his classic simple storytelling sound. The experience continues to represent to many a personification of quintessential Americana and a perfect recipe to kick-start the July 4th celebratory festivities.
The respite to the Berkshire mountains to catch a legend of James Taylor’s pedigree proved enlightening. I saw him last in 1988 and he hadn’t lost a step or nuance in his strong voice. He continues to captivate fans with his signature style. I was delighted to see so many younger fans in attendance, there to catch a glimpse of their idol Swift, but unwittingly witnessing the Hall of Fame songwriter she was named after, passing on the proverbial baton to the one who may someday join him in enshrinement there. JT wrote, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” If you spend more time listening to the brilliant work of both James Taylor and Taylor Swift, you may just enjoy life even more. James Taylor once said, “I believe 100 percent in the power and importance of music.” When it comes to songwriting, there are few as important as these talented Taylors.
(Photo by Hilary Scott)