Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky walked out this morning and wrote this review; he just can't remember who to send it to.
"Now here's the deal: I'm going to play—and you're going to float there and like it."—James Taylor to Buzz Aldrin, from The Simpsons, "Deep Space Homer"
James Taylor put it succinctly when he accepted his award as MusiCares' Person of the Year for 2006: "It's strange to be at an event like this and still be alive." Even after all these years, it is surprising to think of all Taylor has been through on his way to becoming the quintessential light-rock singer-songwriter. It has all been so well chronicled though: the heroin addiction, the tumultuous marriage to Carly Simon, the triumphs and tragedies filtered into his songs (does any fan not know at least one story, true or false, surrounding "Fire and Rain?"). I won't go into all that here, because if you're reading this, chances are you've heard James Taylor before. You can't escape him.
Taylor is one of those musicians who, in spite of not having a hit in decades, still gets regular airplay on the radio and fills concert halls every year. When my wife and I saw him play a stadium show a few years ago, he still managed to create a sense of intimacy, despite the huge band and screaming crowd. (By the way, my wife was ecstatic that I got this DVD to review—she's a huge fan.)
And so, as Taylor approaches sixty with his musical powers as strong as ever (his voice has mellowed nicely with age), here comes the inevitable career tribute, as if he were being dressed for burial. Clearly, such preparations are premature. Still, is the clunky-titled A MusiCares Person of the Year Tribute Honoring James Taylor an actual celebration, or a buttoned-up, dull affair?
MusiCares is a Grammy-sponsored charity organization that provides financial support, addiction recovery, and other services to musicians. Taylor might have needed the addiction part while he was struggling with heroin. But nowadays he's an elder statesman for solo performers in many genres of popular music. Part of this influence is due to the eclectic range of musical styles that creep into his work: blues, country, even gospel.
The show begins with a brief and somewhat stiff biographical overview. The Dixie Chicks offer a folky cover of "Shower the People," followed by a brief appearance by a Grammy official, who formally kicks off the evening. Then the parade of stars begins. The participants include both contemporaries of Taylor's (David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Carole King), as well as a few singer-songwriters of recent vintage, many of whom skew toward the light country demographic (the aforementioned Dixie Chicks, Sheryl Crow, Keith Urban). At first glance, India.Arie might seem an odd choice for such a, um, white crowd, but Taylor's smooth melodies have always translated well to R&B, and she rolls "Secret O'Life" through a soul groove.
It is odd to see stalwarts like David Crosby and Jackson Browne sing backup for Sheryl Crow, but I guess that's the way the crowd skews these days. Even Sting was less pretentious than he's been in years, though he's still playing that damn lute.
(Paul Simon also played that night, but there is no sign of him on the disc. Other songs have been cut or placed out of their original performance order, suggesting a heavy hand in the editing room.)
As a testimony to Taylor's virtuosity, here you'll find soul (India.Arie), bluegrass (Alison Krauss, backed by a dobro), and country (Keith Urban, who looks like he has the flu but still rips a tight guitar solo). Taj Mahal cranks out a thumping version of "Everybody Got the Blues," backed by Dr. John (because every charity concert is now mandated to have at least one New Orleans artist). There isn't a dull performance in the bunch. Bruce Springsteen rambles out (apparently as a surprise), praises Taylor's turn in Monte Hellman's cult Two Lane Blacktop, then tears into an intense "Millworker" that might have come straight off his Nebraska album. Other friends like Jimmy Buffett (warm and funny in a video appearance) and Cheech Marin show up to gush, but don't sing.
Only Carole King doesn't sound in full voice, but given that her song ("You've Got a Friend") is her own, she can be forgiven the effects of time. Midway through, Taylor slinks up to the stage to duet with King and creates instant chemistry right in front of your eyes. Taylor then wraps up the show with three songs: the apt "Shed a Little Light," and the expected hits "How Sweet It Is" and "Fire and Rain." His stage presence is effortless and welcoming. His two small sons, as well as his brother, Livingston, even jump on stage to dance around, making the formal dinner into a real family celebration. This guy can loosen up any crowd.
The best part is how James Taylor looks sincerely grateful and slightly abashed at all the attention. He's apparently made a lot of friends in the industry over the years and every one of them seems to enjoy singing his songs. I was really surprised at how many musicians claimed to have a close relationship with him (only India.Arie and Keith Urban admitted to being fans from a distance).
The MusiCares people keep the charity pitching to a minimum. The music is the focus here. And what great music it is. Even for James Taylor fans who know the originals by heart, these songs gain new life in the hands of performers who actually care.
The disc looks and sounds solid: anamorphic widescreen and a choice of natural-sounding PCM stereo or Dolby 5.1 to capture the live feel. There are no extras however. No additional tributes, information about MusiCares charity projects, or plugs for Grammy-nominated albums? I wonder why Rhino has taken such a cursory approach to this disc, knowing that a legion of James Taylor fans can be enticed into a purchase.
Even if the disc itself misses a golden opportunity, MusiCares itself has done a solid job turning what could have been a stiff evening into a charming show. If future MusiCares concerts are as entertaining and well-staged as this one, this will be a DVD concert series worth looking forward to every year. As an awards show, the Grammys always seem to get more wrong than right (will they ever be forgiven for Milli Vanilli?). But the MusiCares project if off to a great start.
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