Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
March 18, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 11
Sweet Brother James
By Don Heckman
The prospect of James Taylor at Madison Square Garden didn’t strike me as one of the most enlightened ideas of recent memory. Not, of course, that there was any question about his ability to sell out that cavernous wind chamber. In the last few months he has become the virtual darling of the overground media, so the potential audience was, in the New York area, at least, probably not all that much smaller than for the previous Monday night’s Ali-Frazier match.
No, I wasn’t so much concerned about the size of Taylor’s audience as I was about the size of the environment and the effect it would have upon the music (and, obviously, upon the poor souls who were sitting somewhere up near the area of the Empire State Building).
Well, for once it worked. With the help of Joshua Television’s huge screen and three mobile cameras, it was possible for everyone in the place to get a pretty good view — live or electronic; more important, Taylor’s extraordinary charm and good nature made the size of the hall irrelevant. I’m quite sure he communicated just as much sheer magnetic presence to the very last rows as he did to the front. And that, I would say, is the key to Taylor’s snowballing career. I feel quite convinced that he could come on stage, rap a bit with the audience, flash those startling blue eyes, and have most audiences in the palm of his hand — without singing a note. No matter what his recent public biographical comments to the contrary may suggest, Taylor was born to perform and he does it with the natural, unaffected joy of a dolphin skimming through an ocean wave.
And, for once, I can report that the back-up (or warm-up or whatever) acts were a pleasure to hear. I have spent so much time listening to groups that have about five minutes of music to play struggle through hourlong sets, while waiting for the main act to appear, that I was on the verge of getting awfully cynical about the quality of new talent arriving these days. But Taylor’s show was a complete joy, from start to finish. Jo Mama, a group that didn’t particularly impress me on their first recording, sounded very close to brilliant “live.” Danny Kootch has worked out a quite fascinating guitar style that lies mid-point in that still ill-defined territory between jazz and rock. (He is, for example, one of the few rock guitarists I’ve heard who can play impressively swinging double-time runs.) And singer Gail (or is it Abigail?) Haness is on the verge of breaking into major stardom. She looks great, sings great, and knows, as all fine singers should, how to hurt you.
Carole King — she of all those hits from the early, mid, and late ’60s — writes better than she sings, but the songs were such lovely examples of the craft of contemporary songwriting that the general blandness of her singing style (and the occasional unpredictability of her rhythms) could easily be overlooked.
And then there was James Taylor. He involved himself in the whole show, by the way, introducing each of the acts and avoiding the phony sort of star build-up that infected the Stones in their MSG appearance. He did all the familiar songs, added a few new ones (a humorous one about a chili dog and one about hearing himself on a jukebox), and made us feel as though we were all his friends. In the face of that kind of charisma (there’s that word again) it’s hard to retain much critical objectivity. But I did come out of the Garden with the feeling that Taylor’s strengths are centered in his ability and presence as a performer far more than in his skills as a songwriter. Good as some of the tunes are, ther is a certain predictability in his choice of melodies and chord patterns that one is rarely aware of in the work of — to make a really outrageous comparison — Joni Mitchell. I was more reminded, in fact, of Elton John, who also has written a few good songs but who seems unable to shake off the stylistic repetitiveness of his composing style. And John, unfortunately, lacks Taylor’s performing magic.
A minor criticism, for the moment. I hope it doesn’t become a major one, but it will if Taylor is too impressed with his press clippings to continue to work before live audiences. We need his music — oh yes we do — but I suspect he needs our reactions too.
Caveat Emptor. If you still love Elton John, don’t let the association of his name with a new film called “Friends” sucker you into seeing it. I won’t quite go so far as to say it’s the worst film I’ve ever seen, but it comes close. Would you believe at least three scenes in which the lovers approach each other from opposite sides of the screen, running, in slow motion, to a clinch in which he spins her round and round — okay, enough. John’s music is dull, unrepresentative, and couldn’t save the film anyhow, so don’t bother.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]