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James Taylor continues to enjoy serving songs

By PETER SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 4, 2001


James Taylor, writing about himself, once named one of his albums Dad Loves His Work. If you ever doubted it, just get a chance to see him live.

Taylor played the Ice Palace Saturday night with a brilliant, subtle band. All were dedicated to serving the songs, and they served them well. From their opener, Buddy Holly's classic Every Day, Taylor treated the crowd to a surprisingly intimate evening's music.

Ever since Taylor's first hit record, Fire and Rain in 1969, he has presented himself as a shy, almost awkward troubadour, a stance he still tends toward in between songs. But nobody does something that makes him uncomfortable for over 30 years, and that stance is belied every time he starts to play.

His sheer pleasure in fronting a band this good draws the audience to him as strongly as does his warm, intimate singing and equally intimate songs. When Taylor began performing and writing to a large audience, his songs sounded like pages from a diary, and he would occasionally be grouped with the lesser (some much lesser) performers and writers who followed in his footsteps. That he is still creating intelligent music for a large audience is proofthat he was and is not just a man with a guitar, but an artist and a craftsman.

Taylor is a startlingly good guitarist. Dizzy Gillespie once said it took him 30 years to figure out when not to play, something Taylor seems to understand instinctively. Often only suggesting a full chord rather than playing it, he gives his songs room to breathe, and his players spaces to fill. Even when playing solo, he will often play only one or two notes rather than a full chord, which gives his music an airy feel, often contradicted by the power of his lyrics.

His band, Clifford Carter (keyboards), Bob Mann (guitar), Jimmy Johnson (bass), Russ Kunkel (drums), Luis Conte (percussion), Walt Fowler (brass) and Lou Marini (saxophone) cradle Taylor's songs in strong playing.

Four strong background singers, Arnold McCuller, David Lasley, Valerie Carter and Kate Markowitz, pillow Taylor's strong, reedy voice with fascinating harmonies, much to Taylor's pleasure. (After a strong vocal sally by McCuller, Taylor muttered, "Boy, he's good . . . a little too good.")

He is also willing to take chances with his audience's attention, presenting three as yet unreleased songs during his first set, at least one of which, Fourth of July, stands by his best work. In fact his first set was seemingly dedicated to non-hits, from That's Why I'm Here to the brilliant Frozen Man.

Frozen Man may be one of Taylor's finest songs in years. His metaphor (a man found frozen in ice for a century and revived, much to his dismay) rings to anyone who feels out of place, out of time. The character he portrays in this song is resigned, yet strong, facing his own current situation and final death with equanimity ("When I die make sure I'm gone/Don't leave 'em nothing to work on/You can wave your arm, you can wiggle your hand (not like myself)/And you can wave goodbye to the frozen man.").

His second set featured his more well-known songs, songs he has sung for more than half his life. Carolina In My Mind, Fire and Rain and Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight are wonderful songs by any standard, and Taylor still seems to love to sing them.

On this the second night of a tour that runs through October, Taylor is clearly doing what he intends to do, give his audience and himself pleasure. That it is shared makes it all the more real.

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