We continue here with a piece I wrote after seeing James Taylor in concert in 2005, which has been moldering in my files ever since. In part 1, I started feeling like there was something strange about the show. In part 2, as the band played “Mexico,” I realized that it was the night being a baby boomer jumped the shark.
My reaction to the second set is probably unfair to Taylor, shaped by the realization I’d had with “Mexico”—but I find myself wishing he’d just get finished already. Taylor had done a brief bit before intermission in which he was surprised to find a copy of his list for the second set at his feet. He held it up and joked that the songs would make a fine set. I guessed at the time that there were about 12 songs on it, and now I find myself counting them, and checking my watch. After a while, the uptempo numbers, such as “Steamroller Blues” and “How Sweet it Is”—and the crowd’s reaction to each—start to seem like parody. Despite his age and ours, he’s playing at rock star, and we’re playing at still being cool enough to rock and roll.
The ritual of begging for the encore is followed by “Up on the Roof”—never a favorite of mine—and “Summertime Blues,” which is more rock-star parody, I think to myself, because Taylor’s primarily a balladeer and has never been convincing as a rock singer. I hold out a small glimmer of hope that the second encore might be “You’ve Got a Friend” and somehow redeem the whole night. It isn’t, and it doesn’t.
I don’t see how my body language, both during the encores and as we head down the steps and out of the arena, can be especially neutral, although when I mention to The Mrs. on the way out how dull I’d found the second set, she sounds flabbergasted. We don’t talk about the concert on the way home, although I ask one of our companions, who’s seen Taylor three times before, how this show compared to the others. She says he seemed more relaxed and spontaneous than she’s ever seen him, signing autographs for people in the front rows and bantering with them, and with his musicians. I don’t confess what I felt about the show, and the subject never comes up again.
Understanding the point of James Taylor’s performance is easy. He’s a working musician, and if people are still willing to pay premium prices to watch him work, he’d be foolish to leave the money on the table. Understanding the point of the audience’s performance is harder. Why were we there, exactly? Why did we load up the CD players in our midsizes and minivans with Sweet Baby James or October Road, and make this particular scene? Was it just an evening’s diversion? Was it a ritual of tribal solidarity? Or was it another act in our personal productions of Real Life: The Series?
There’s an argument that attending Taylor’s concert is the opposite of a mediated performance. What’s more real than being right there in the hall while the man himself, a man you’ve listened to for 35 years and who has no greater agenda than playing some of his songs, is just a few dozen feet away? But if you read some of the reviews of earlier shows on the tour, you learn that Taylor’s Everyman blue shirt is one he’s worn before. And you learn that the joke about finding the list for the second set, which seemed so spontaneous, is actually a part of every show. So the spontaneity wasn’t spontaneous at all—but it didn’t matter. The audience’s happy laughter and self-satisfied feeling of identification with Taylor as a regular guy making the sort of hyper-clever joke we’d want to make if we were in his shoes is exactly what our role requires. We’d have played it that way whether the joke was real or not.
Unpacking stuff in this way is like peeling an onion—only the onion’s layers corkscrew back on one another instead of coming apart distinctly. The difference between showmanship and manipulation. The difference being entertained and understanding that we’re being entertained. The difference between the people we were in the 1970s and the more mediated people we are now.
(Yes, there will be a part 4, which will be, mercifully, the last part, next week.)