Sweet Baby James

Did anyone drive past the Wilshire Theater on Saturday night? I ask because I'm wondering if it was glowing and pulsating slightly on the outside. On the inside it was filled to capacity with adoring James Taylor fans, awash in music and pleasure and love. It felt like the building itself was a beating heart. You can read Richard Cromelin's review of the show here for critical detail, which I am too subjective to offer.

My mother introduced me to JT when I was eight, bringing "Sweet Baby James" and "One Man Dog" into the house on LP. I quickly absconded with them where they stayed in permanent rotation on my bedroom turntable.

My mom replaced those purloined albums with 8-Tracks which we listened to in the family car. They were the soundtrack for our long drives up to Duchess County, NY, where we stayed with our James-Taylor-lovin' friends the Hayses, in their ramshackle farmhouse. I can feel the bumps in the road and hear the whir of crickets outside our car window as "Country Road" played on our tinny car stereo. I remember vividly an afternoon spent at the crossroads outside our friends' house with Allison, their teenage daughter, waving McGovern/Shriver banners (who I supported simply because my parents did) at passing cars and singing the entire Taylor songbook.

James Taylor was a safe haven for me in the 1970's. As my parents caromed toward an ugly divorce, and the sexual laissez-fair of the 70's shoved its way into my pre-teen consciousness, Taylor offered a gentle adult worldview. "Something in the Way She Moves," was how I wanted to be described by a boy. "Shower the People You Love With Love" was the answer for all the grief I felt for my parent's dying marriage. After they split, when my father was living in Los Angeles, he took me to see James Taylor at an open-air theater (Universal? The Ford?). It was my first concert, and James was a lean, long-haired troubadour, inflaming my tender heart.

I devoted my 'tween years to James Taylor, saving up allowance to buy "Gorilla", "In the Pocket" and "Walking Man." I would lie in bed and fantasize about James, trying to decide which of his albums I would save first were my room to actually combust from the heat of my passion.

Then I went to boarding school, where I was introduced to a larger world of singer/songwriters. Even though it was already 1979, I discovered Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young!) , Carole King (you're kidding, you mean she wrote "You've Got a Friend"?!), and James Taylor seemed an embarrassing part of the geeky childhood I was trying to put behind me.

Over the next twenty years James lost his hair, and I lost interest. I judged him by his dweeby-looking album covers. I turned up my nose and stayed away, thinking that something that meant so much to me when I was eleven, couldn't possibly be meaningful now. Instead I was listening to Victoria Williams, Matthew Sweet, John Wesley Harding, Lucinda Williams, Syd Straw, The Bedshredders (anyone of you local yokels remember them?), The Dixie Chicks -- all those artists would probably have been the first to smack me on the forehead and tell me to go back to listening to James Taylor if they knew me.

Then I had kids. Sitting in the dark one night with a restive toddler, searching for something sweet to soothe her, "Sweet Baby James" came back to me, along with the complete lyrics, out of the rusty footlocker of my memory. Its magic was still intact and it conjured the same feelings and mental pictures it did thirty years ago. I have sung it to my daughter Georgia literally hundreds of times over the past few years, and our pleasure in the song never diminishes.

James Taylor is all about pleasure. He knows what feels good and he's not afraid to give it to you. My friend Jaff, a hedonist in her own right, got us the tickets. A woman of unabashed enthusiasms, she ranks her love for James Taylor just half a notch below her love for her dog Franny. When she told me she was taking me to see him, I got on board immediately, just to be with her. As far as Taylor was concerned, I'll admit I was a little circumspect. Would it be embarrassing? Corny? Hokey? But the minute he took the stage with his guitar, draped his long body over a tall stool, and strummed the opening chords of "Something in the Way She Moves," I was right back in his pocket, like I had never left.

It can be argued that his palette hasn't changed much over the years, and there are those who accuse him of having a narrow range - but what it lacks in breadth it more than makes up for in depth. He does what he does so well, and there is such huge delight to be had in his creamy voice, his sparkling guitar, his melodies that haunt and words that both caress and enlighten - to argue with his gift is to be a wretched cynic. "If it feels nice, don't think twice," James sings, and I promise I never will again. Having seen my own share of fire and rain, Taylor's songs now hold that much more meaning for me. I just want to be back in his world again. I've ordered the cd's of all the LP's I once owned, plus a couple of newer titles.

Perhaps some of you saw him on the Oscars performing Randy Newman's song from "Cars." Those were not ideal James-enjoying conditions. The microphone seemed to be feeding back on him, and the venue was all wrong. He was a fish among sharks, incongruous against all that glitz, and Newman's song, while pretty, doesn't have the emotional content that so animates Taylor's own work. But at The Wilshire Theater, he was a gem set in a lovely gift box.

At one point during the concert, as the ornate, deco walls of The Wilshire seemed to vibrate with the love and joy around us, Jaff turned to me, her face a study in ecstasy and said, "James Taylor just makes you want to live in a barn and eat jam."

Yes. It was just a lovely ride.

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