New York Times
April 13, 2011
James Taylorâ€™s Singular Voice, Steeped in 120 Years of Music
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
James Taylor may be the foremost contemporary composer of what you might call American lullabies. â€œCarolina in My Mind,â€ â€œSweet Baby James,â€ â€œShower the People,â€ â€œMy Traveling Star,â€ and â€œYou Can Close Your Eyes,â€ all of which he performed at a Carnegie Hall gala concert on Tuesday evening celebrating the hallâ€™s 120th year, share the same elusive magic. Along with â€œHome on the Rangeâ€ â€œRed River Valleyâ€ and Stephen Foster ballads, they seem somehow to have always existed.
Especially when Mr. Taylor sings them in a voice that is both astringent and soothing, he conjures the image of a lonely cowboy murmuring to himself by a campfire somewhere in the Appalachians. The sadness and comfort these songs evoke are two sides of the same coin. Like no-one elseâ€™s, Mr. Taylorâ€™s music distills a primal American yearning that can never be completely satisfied: the dream of home sweet home.
Because there is a ceremonial quality in everything Mr. Taylor does, the gala felt a little like an upbeat church service at which Mr. Taylor presided over his flock like a modest Protestant minister. It was the first of four thematic shows, all featuring Mr. Taylor, called â€œPerspectives.â€
A â€œRootsâ€ evening on April 20 will concentrate on music he heard while growing up. â€œGuitar Conversationsâ€ on May 6 will team him with some of his favorite guitarists. And â€œQuintessential James Taylor,â€ on May 9, will be an anthology of Mr. Taylorâ€™s best songs.
Tuesdayâ€™s gala, a retrospective of Carnegie Hallâ€™s history, encompassed Broadway, jazz, folk music, and comedy. Featured guests included Bette Midler, Barbara Cook, Steve Martin, Dianne Reeves, Sting, and two choruses.
A somewhat shaky â€œThereâ€™s No Business Like Show Business,â€ a song very much off Mr. Taylorâ€™s beaten track, led off a show (directed by Scott Ellis), during which photographs of stars who have appeared in the hall were flashed onto a screen at the back of the stage. A flexible band playing musical arrangements by Charles Floyd negotiated the stylistic leaps from vaudeville to folk to rock with impressive agility.
Ms. Midler channeled Sophie Tucker in a medley that included â€œSome of These Days,â€ â€œAfter Youâ€™ve Gone,â€ and â€œMy Yiddishe Momme.â€ Demonstrating her stylistic audacity, she leapt from an understated â€œPirate Jennyâ€ to a raucous â€œSweet Blindness. (Mister D: A rock/gospel number written by Laura Nyro)â€ Mr. Martin, whom Mr. Taylor introduced as â€œa banjo-playing fool,â€ led a bluegrass ensemble through â€œFoggy Mountain Breakdownâ€ and leavened the evening with sly witticisms.
Although Ms. Reeves performed only one number, the Billie Holiday lament, â€œDonâ€™t Explain,â€ it was a killer. Paced very slowly with minimal accompaniment, she sang as though she were dragging the weight of the world behind her.
But the eveningâ€™s most compelling performance was Ms. Cookâ€™s â€œHereâ€™s to Life.â€ To hear this indestructible woman, who is now 83, muse, â€œI had my share, I drank my fill/ And even though Iâ€™m satisfied, Iâ€™m hungry stillâ€ in a voice that has lowered without shedding any of its luster was to receive lines of personal scripture torn from the soul.
The notion of a James Taylor-Barbara Cook duet may have sounded promising in theory. But as they regaled each other with choruses of â€œNot While Iâ€™m Around,â€ from â€œSweeney Todd,â€ like son and mother, their voices didnâ€™t match.
The showâ€™s only outright failure was its attempt to cover comedy by having Kevin Pollak impersonate Lenny Bruce in an excerpt from a live recording Bruce made at Carnegie Hall. The impression was deft, but the material hasnâ€™t held up.
The appearance of Sting late in the show singing â€œPenny Laneâ€ gave the evening a sudden lift. From then on it was smooth sailing. And when the Tanglewood Festival Chorus arrived to join Mr. Taylor and Sting on â€œHow Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),â€ euphoria reined. Who knew, until Mr. Taylor put his stamp on it in 1975, that this Marvin Gaye standard could be transmuted so seamlessly into an upbeat folk-pop chorale?
After Bill Clinton appeared to make a pitch for the Weill Music Instituteâ€™s education programs, a second group, the Young Peopleâ€™s Chorus of New York trooped down the aisles to sing â€œShower the People,â€ and the collective joy intensified.
Reflecting on Carnegie Hallâ€™s history, Mr. Taylor named Judy Garlandâ€™s 1961 concert there as the hallâ€™s show business high point and he sang a tender â€œOver the Rainbow.â€
â€œItâ€™s what I think of as the anthem of Carnegie Hall,â€ he declared.