James Taylor

Columbia, 1993

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


In some ways, the opening moments of Live—at the time, the first full-length live album of iconic singer-songwriter James Taylor’s then-quarter-century career—says it all. He enters unannounced and unassuming as the crowd noise envelops him in a huge collective hug, and when the murmurs of support finally calm to a dull roar, he leans into the mike, pronounces a somewhat amused, somewhat embarrassed “Hello,” and launches into a solo rendition of “Sweet Baby James,” just him and his acoustic. Within a handful of notes the amphitheater is quiet as a chapel in prayer.

Such has long been the relationship between Taylor and his wide audience—repeated surges of affection and adoration, mixed with bouts of awe at the purity of expression and emotion he achieves in his songs, which veer between soul-baring confessionals, luminous love songs and witty social commentary, all rendered with the warmth, precision, and easy accessibility of tunes lifted directly from the American Songbook, so many of them potential standards themselves.

Taylor has always thrived playing live, thanks both to the sterling quality of his gentle, engaging songs, and to his long habit of featuring world-class musicians in his band, dating back to his original backing trio of Danny Kortchmar (guitar), Lee Sklar (bass) and Russell Kunkel (drums), who went on to become among LA’s most in-demand session players both individually and as part of The Section with keyboardist Craig Doerge. This particular JT band lineup features an equally stellar cast of Don Grolnick (piano and music director), Michael Landau (guitar), Clifford Carter (keyboards), Jimmy Johnson (bass) and Carlos Vega (drums), complemented by the remarkable backing vocal chorus of Valerie Carter, David Lasley, Kate Markowitz and the irrepressible Arnold McCuller.

The setlist is dominated by warmly rendered Taylor classics that any fan long since knows by heart, from “Your Smiling Face” to “Fire And Rain” to “Something In the Way She Moves” and “Carolina In My Mind.” The point here isn’t to embellish these tunes, which don’t need it; it’s simply to play them with heart and authority, with Taylor and band feeding off of the live crowd’s considerable energy. Still, you can feel the extra lift a staple like “Country Road” receives when JT adds a soaring vocal scat to the bridge that brings all assembled to their feet—it’s the magic of band and audience moving together. The reception is just as warm for at-the-time-newer tunes like the shimmering “Copperline” and the playful “Slap Leather.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

As always, JT features mostly his own songs but also a smattering of covers, betraying his love of American standards and early rock era classics with his take on “She Thinks I Still Care,” a Dickey Lee-written number one hit for George Jones in 1962 that went on to be covered by, among others, Connie Francis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Cher, Merle Haggard, Leon Russell, John Fogerty and Elvis Presley. Other featured covers include Taylor’s sparkling run at the Motown classic “How Sweet It Is,” the early ’60s Jimmy Jones-Otis Blackwell hit “Handy Man,” and the pair of tunes he borrowed from good friend Carole King, “Up On The Roof” and the immortal “You’ve Got A Friend.”

Still, the highlights for this listener are a trio of tunes where Taylor’s remarkable supporting chorus is featured. “Shower The People” ambles along tenderly until the close, where Taylor hands the song off to McCuller for a spectacular vocal showcase (a handoff he repeats later on “I Will Follow”). And both “Shed A Little Light”—Taylor’s tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.—and “That Lonesome Road”—his eulogy for friend John Belushi—are positively radiant as the five-strong vocal chorus lights up the night with sterling harmonies.

You could quibble over a few track choices, with relative obscurities like “New Hymn,” “Riding On A Railroad” and “I Will Follow” taking the place of missing latter-era hits like “Her Town Too,” “That’s Why I’m Here” and “Never Die Young,” but with a songbook this deep, there’s no pleasing everyone.

In terms of sonics, the album is crystal clear and free of overdubs; producers Don Grolnick and George Massenburg recorded a string of 14 dates on a tour booked for the specific purpose of creating a live document, with the best performance of each track selected and delivered as is for this release. At 30 tracks and two full hours of music, it’s an entire evening of Taylor and band.

It feels maybe a little extra poignant to be listening to Live right now, in this strange in-between space where many of us don’t yet feel comfortable attending even those shows where proof of COVID-19 vaccination is required. Someday in the future, though, I hope to feel that feeling again that I’ve experienced at half a dozen James Taylor shows like the ones captured here, of being in the presence of a master craftsman and artist doing exactly what he was put on this earth to do.

Rating: A

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