You've Got a Friend, Fire and Rain, it's still good.
I heard a joke once. It had to do with the lawsuits that were being filed against heavy metal bands for supposedly causing fans to commit suicide. The punchline went "Well, if they can sue Judas Priest for making them kill themselves, do I get to sue James Taylor for turning me into a wimp in the early '70s?" Soft folk rock wasn't really my thing back then; being more enthusiastic with Led Zeppelin, the last days of the Beatles, and upcoming bands like Blue Oyster Cult. Certainly I did listen to him on occasion, and over the years have come to enjoy his music more. But only after viewing James Taylor: Live at the Beacon Theatre, surprisingly shot at New York's Beacon Theatre of all things, did I really become a fan. This was the first time I've ever seen him in a full concert, and there are a lot of songs I had never heard. 25 songs on this DVD from Columbia Music Video, and the sound quality is fantastic.
James Taylor doesn't look much like a rock/pop star anymore. His long flowing hair has given way to baldness. He still has a look that befits his folk music side though. However, he still sounds exactly the same as I remember. His smooth voice hasn't lost anything over the years. But what really struck me the most in watching this concert was his youthful joy at performing even after more than 30 years. He seemed a bit shy and unassuming, but had a close rapport with the audience that suggested more of a small club appearance than a large theatre.
The performance itself was superb. Both old favorites and songs I'd never heard were flawlessly done with a band and backup singers that have a wealth of experience. Some of them have worked with Taylor for more than 20 years, and most of them have extensive studio experience with many top acts. There is also a couple Buddy Holly covers on the disc that were redone for his more mellow style. That doesn't mean he couldn't rock it up too, at least a little. In Steamroller Blues he showed he could do a pretty fair bluesharp, and the band was able to get into swing. My subwoofer even shook the walls. There should be something for everyone on this disc.
The disc itself is as good as the concert. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack was done with DVD in mind. The soundstage was spacious and deep. Though confined somewhat to the front 3 channels, I noticed definite use of the areas between the speakers for imaging. The surrounds were mainly used for audience sounds and some reverb, but did bring the experience full circle. The sound was clearly detailed, with a great dynamic range. Instruments seemed to leap into my living room. I rate it very highly for sound quality, matching the best concert DVDs I've heard yet, such as The Eagles: Hell Freezes Over. There is also a very fine stereo track for those without DD capability yet, but you'll be happy when you can finally go the full 5.1.
The visual quality was both stunning and a bit disappointing, if you can understand that. Let me clarify. The level of detail was fantastic; you could even see the beads of sweat on Taylor's forehead. The color of the stage dressing was remarkable, and changed over a nice palette as different colored lights struck it throughout the show. Flesh tones were accurate, and the shine of his guitar was perfect. But I saw definite signs of overcompression as well and some distracting edge overenhancement. It is still more than adequate for a concert disc, which to me does not depend nearly as much as a film for perfection in the video.
One complaint I've had with most concert DVDs in the past was the lack of extras. This one does it right. Perhaps the most welcome of them was the ability to have the lyrics appear in either French or English at the bottom of the screen as he sang them. It gives the instant ability to sing along even if you've never heard the song before. Very nice. Other extras I've called for on such discs are all there as well. There is a very nice bio section for Taylor and his whole band. A complete discography for James Taylor, with album covers and complete song lists, even with what noteworthy musicians performed on each song, is another big plus. There is also an interview with James Taylor done just before the show that gives some other sideline information. Last but not least are two bonus music videos; for Copperline and Enough to be on Your Way. There are also chapter stops for each song. A very complete disc, and something other music discs need to emulate.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The few flaws in the video is really my only complaint to lodge with the disc; a bit more time with the transfer and it could be nearly perfect. I could also argue that a widescreen transfer would have been preferable, to see more of the stage at once, but the concert was originally performed for television, a PBS special to be specific.
The small flaws do not begin to compare to the fine qualities of this disc. If you like James Taylor, buy it today. If you don't know if you like him, give it a rental. And other studios should watch this to get a handle on just what to do on releasing their own concert discs.
James Taylor is released from any preconceptions of being a pop star for the polyester set, and gets the full reputation he deserves. Columbia Music Video has improved its reputation with me for this fine effort. Just do a bit less edge enhancement and you've got the reference standard here.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Columbia Music Video
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