Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Tale of two concerts

Wow, don't be surprised I'm so tired. On Sunday night, Aug. 21st, I went to Coldplay in Irvine. Last night, Monday, I went to James Taylor at the Hollywood Bowl.

Both concerts were worth attending, but it was the James Taylor show that really blew me away. Surprised? Don't be. Coldplay was amazing when I saw the band at Coachella on April 30, 2005. But here, with a longer set and only a night after playing a full-length show at the same venue (Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine), the band was good, but not great. Maybe it was because I was way back in the lawn area, a million miles from the stage. But there were plenty of great moments; "Yellow" and "Speed Of Sound" immediately coming to mind. Chris is a great lead singer, but the natural comparisons with U2 will always hurt. There is only one U2.

James Taylor is an original, and draws comparisons to ... James Taylor! He was amazing! It was my first time ever catching him in concert and it was worth the long drive to L.A. and the even more daunting journey home.

With the possible exception of recent shows by Aimee Mann and some of the better sets at Coachella, I can’t recall a concert where so many people stopped chattering and ignoring their cell phones in favor of listening to the music making – which is exactly the way it should be at a James Taylor concert.
Performing before an enthusiastic and capacity crowd at the legendary Hollywood Bowl on Monday night, the personable singer-songwriter demonstrated that his skills as vocalist, guitarist, bandleader – and comedian – remain formidable.
And while the audience was unusually hushed during beautifully-rendered acoustic-styled songs such as “Fire and Rain” (a masterpiece that never sounds dated; it brought tears to my eyes), “Carolina in My Mind” and “Sweet Baby James,” they would clap along without prompting during upbeat numbers such as “Your Smiling Face” and Latin-flavored “Mexico.”
Performing 25 songs stretching across more than two hours, Taylor and his 11-member band performed plenty of hits, but also took the audience on well-timed detours displaying his skills playing the blues, Celtic and even country-western styled material. His reading of the traditional Irish folk song “The Water is Wide” was simply gorgeous, with his rich baritone and acoustic guitar conquering the song’s timeless melody with a mix of authenticity and emotion as he was accompanied by virtuoso fiddle player Andrea Zonn.
Early in his show, Taylor introduced two songs he had written for the late Ray Charles. Both the tender “Nothin’ Like a Hundred Miles” and more driving “Everybody Has the Blues” also featured Taylor’s impressive guitar playing.
And recalling how he had toured with the Dixie Chicks last year, his band performed a rousing country version of that group’s “Some Days You Gotta Dance.”
Between songs, Taylor would tell stories and engage in humorous exchanges that usually hit home. At one point, a woman yelled out, “I love you James.” The singer replied, “I love you too,” before pausing and adding with a Bob Newhart-styled manner, “It seems like a funny time to bring it up.”
At another point, someone yelled out a request for a song. Taylor picked up a small chalkboard that featured the set list, looked at it and noted the band would get to that song later in the night.
His stories often recalling when and why specific songs were written, as well as engaging exchanges with the audience – including signing autographs for fans who made it to the edge of the stage – only added a dimension to the concert. Who knew “Sweet Baby James” was a cowboy lullaby or that a photo he saw in National Geographic magazine inspired the introspective “The Frozen Man”?
Toward the end of the night, Taylor and company performed energetic songs such as “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” “Steamroller Blues” and “Summertime Blues” getting the audience to their feet.To close the night, Taylor returned to the stage with his three backing singers to perform a hushed and beautiful “You Can Close Your Eyes.” This was a night where offering up classic hits and nostalgia took a unquestionably back seat to Taylor’s loving and emotional delivery of the songs.

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