Well, I’ve been waiting for this one for a long time. I can’t exactly remember when it was I picked up a beat-up vinyl copy of Gorilla and became a fan but it would have to be a good twenty years ago. Over the years JT has risen up the ranks of my ‘must-see-live’ list, but only managed to return to New Zealand (after last playing there in 1987) a few short weeks after I’d moved to London last year. Still, I knew he was a fairly regular visitor to London, so had my fingers crossed that such a disappointment would be forgotten within time.
As an owner of a couple of live JT DVDs, and of course 1993’s unimaginatively-titled, but essential double CD, James Taylor Live, I knew exactly what to expect from JT in concert – an amazing rapport with the audience, thanks largely to his extraordinary (if well-rehearsed) self-deprecating sense of humour, note-perfect renditions of a good chunk of his classics, peppered with a handful of covers and obscure album tracks, and a great band backing him throughout. Indeed the ticket makes reference to ‘his legendary band’ and with the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Mike Landau and Arnold McCuller amongst its ranks, no accusations of hyperbole on that front could ever hold water. As with most things that look great on DVD, though, it turned out that being there in person is about ten times better.
Of all the acoustic-guitar wielding singer-songwriters of the 70s Taylor was always far and away the best guitarist, with a guitar sound as distinctive as his songwriting, and coupled with that warm, smooth voice, that barely seems to have changed at all over the years, the 02 somehow seemed like a far more intimate venue than it actually is. As with Neil Diamond’s show last week, the sound was crystal clear, with every instrument easily identifiable in the mix, making the problems with Rush’s gig earlier in the year (sorry this is the last time I’ll mention it, I swear...) look more and more like the fault of an incompetent soundman.
As I hinted at above, it’s clear that most of the spoken song intros are well-rehearsed, but part of JTs appeal is his interaction with the crowd, and he was on fine form – after initially discarding a ridiculous pink hat that had been left on stage during the break, he learned that it had been put there by a rather young fan, so he gamely sported it just so they could get a photo. Elsewhere a request for Only One got it spontaneously added to the setlist, whereas a later request for Mud Slide Slim was met with a ‘No, but don’t worry, this next one sounds just like it’ (No, it wasn’t Mud Slide Slim, it was Jump Up Behind Me – this comment was possibly a reference to his earlier quip that he ‘appeared’ to have written about 150 songs, but in reality it was 10 songs 15 times each).
With the exceptions of Handy Man and Her Town Too all of the obvious classics were aired, culminating in an 02 singalong with an encore of Shower the People (featuring McCuller’s usual song-stealing descant at its conclusion) and You’ve Got a Friend (surprisingly JT’s ONLY Top 40 hit in the UK!). On the obscure side of things were Angry Blues from Gorilla and Rock and Roll is Music Now, which was the only song of the night I was unfamiliar with, coming as it does from Taylor’s only real flop, 1974’s Walking Man (his only album not to be certified gold in the US, and one of a tiny handful not to have received platinum certification).
Highlights were many, but special mention must go to ‘cheery thing’ Your Smiling Face, Shed a Little Light, with its odd structure and fabulous gospel quality, Fire and Rain (still one of the greatest songs of all time, and one it is impossible to tire of) and Steamroller Blues which has had many different arrangements over the years, and really played on the ‘bluesy’ side of the title more than many previous versions. Then there were Up on the Roof and How Sweet It Is, two songs he had hit covers with, but are so much better live than they were in his studio versions. Come to think of it, I could happily list all two-dozen songs as ‘highlights’...okay, one exception – Line ‘Em Up - he apologised for the intro being longer than the song, but the intro was also better than the song (hey, even lifelong JT-basher Robert Christgau likes Line ‘Em Up so it can’t be any good, right?). All in all though the extra year’s wait to finally add JT to my ‘seen’ list was well worth it. Now he’s moved near to the top of my ‘must see again’ list... (10/10)