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Woodman Folk Club - Reviews

James Taylor Civic Hall, Wolverhampton
Malcolm Jeffrey 11 April 2007

When the tour dates for James Taylor’s “One Man Band” UK tour were announced, the Midlands venue proved to be the good old Civic Hall, and the promise of witnessing Mr Taylor’s guitar capabilities in such an intimate, local setting proved too tempting by half for Graham, Bob and myself. Graham shouted the tickets up, our party is augmented both in numbers and femininity (ahhnnnnn !) by Kay and Sally, and Bob, who currently works in Brussels, has to make arrangements to fly to Blighty for the Friday gig.

Then things start to go a tad awry. To accompany a few numbers on his tour, James Taylor has constructed a huge, wooden, Heath-Robinson-esque drum machine, seemingly clockwork and definitely working on the rotating drum principal of a music box whose prongs trigger, not notes, but percussive effects on integral drums and cymbals via a series of hammers. It’s the size of a small car and so has to be transported from the US via shipping container, and while he’s at it, James packs the tour PA, guitars and video equipment in too. Unfortunately, although the container is stowed on the boat on schedule, it’s the boat itself that’s the problem : its Japanese owner sells it to a South Korean company and with the handover, the shipping schedule went all pear-shaped and the boat was late sailing. It only arrives at Felixstowe on Good Friday, not only subject to the usual bank holiday delays, but also the night he should have been opening the tour in Wolverhampton – and it was only following a live appeal by JT, on BBC breakfast TV and radio, to the port people to try to expedite the unloading, that the wife of a high-ranking port authority official saw the appeal, pestered her husband, and the ship was given an earlier unloading berth so that the equipment could get to the next gigs on the tour at the Symphony Hall in Birmingham. All too late for Wolverhampton, though, and although the gig is quickly and sportingly rescheduled at the Civic for the following Wednesday, it’s bad news for poor Bob whose flight to the UK specially for a gig on Friday goes back to Brussels on Sunday evening. :o(

So we have a spare ticket for the rescheduled Wednesday (though, as this was the original date for a cancelled Donovan gig for Kay and I at the Symphony Hall, it could have been 3 spare ones…) and after offering Bob’s ticket to a few unavailable people, Steph, a colleague at Kay’s school and a life-long James Taylor fan, suddenly finds out a day and a half before the gig that she will not only be going to her very first concert, no less*, but that it will feature one of her heroes to boot (* I am reminded, proof-reading this, that strictly speaking, Steph’s first gig was actually The Grumbleweeds at Butlin’s but I think you get my drift… :o) Needless to say, Steph is understandably highly chuffed and excited, and although it’s often not wise to hold excessively high hopes about the quality of a long-anticipated gig, the rest of us have seen James Taylor before and know that on this occasion, she is unlikely to end up disappointed..

And off we all go on Wednesday night to the gig !

As befits the catchment criteria for a James Taylor concert, the Civic Hall is predominately full of middle-aged punters drinking halves with a placid, hippy demeanour, but this doesn’t prevent a dour Security Gentleman from ordering us out of the main hall when we are spotted carrying our drinks in to find our seats. And quite right too – whereas a crowd of, say, Motörhead fans in the same room are more liable to be mature, self-controlled paragons of sobriety, you wouldn’t be guaranteed the same levels of civilised behaviour from communist pot-head subversive types, after all. So it’s out we go to finish off our drinks guiltily in the hallway, only to be ordered to go back in when the bell for the start of the performance rings : thus put justly in our place, we settle in our seats on the fourth row and take in the gentle buzz of a roomful of happy JT fans in conversation. A shiny Steinway grand piano, stage left, with (possibly) a harmonium positioned in front of it on a low table, is awaiting Larry Goldings, James Taylor’s long-time keyboard player (though this stretches the strict definition of the phrase “One Man Band” a tad ;oD) and a projection screen is assembled stage right : in between, and plumb in front of us is James Taylor’s stool, guitar stand, and a table for a water bottle and an Apple laptop, while above a collection of chintzy chandeliers hang over the performance area for a cosy, intimate, yet faintly cheesy atmosphere. A tapestry is hanging all the way over the back of the stage and, standing up, we confirm that James Taylor has brought the carpet he usually likes to perform on, too.

There’s not a lot of time to take it all in, though, as true to the start time on the ticket, the lights go down in testimony to James Taylor’s accustomed punctuality, and he walks on stage left to fond applause and cheers, caught in the spotlight all gawky humility and good nature, and, from my position on row D and below the level of the stage, seemingly 9 feet tall. He’s in faded jeans, shirt and dark jacket, and after shyly accepting a wrapped yellow rose (the gift of a single flower seems to be a traditional thing at James Taylor gigs), he ambles over to his stool, picks up his Olsen, checks the tuning, and he’s off with “Something In The Way She Moves”. His picking hand doesn’t really seem to be doing a lot, fingers barely dipping down onto the strings, and there’s little if no fret and string noise, all economy and skill : I glance over at Steph and she’s wide-eyed and enraptured like a little girl, wearing a huge grin. :o) The PA sound is well-controlled and balanced, and I see that Mr Taylor has included mid-stage monitor speakers, as Jethro Tull do, to allow those of us lucky enough to be in the middle front to share the sound coming from the main speakers. The Wolverhampton crowd explode into applause as the final chord and hammer-on fades away and JT, for me seen close-up for the first time, seems faintly self-conscious at the response. In the darkness, I catch keyboard player Larry Goldings sneaking on, while James, in the discomfited silence following the applause, asks us "You alright ?" the Brits politely reply with variations on "Yes thanks" but one punter responds : "You ?" “Yeah, I’m fine” says James. With all the tact native to the Black Country, another wag calls out "Where's your hair gone ?" - "I still have it all here", says James wryly, indicating his jacket pocket. Good for you, James.

"Never Die Young" is the next song, nicely delivered and subtly enhanced by Larry Goldings, and a gig-goer scuttles to the front at the end of the song, flashing JT with a camera-phone, only to be pounced on and waved away by none other than Mr Grumpy No-Drinks Security Guard . Quick on the defence, James says “No, no – pictures are fine”, sending the jobsworth skulking off, and, in a tense silence following his and our embarrassment, nothing happens… With a small grin on his face, JT intones "It was the last picture ever taken.", effortlessly diffusing two back-to-back nervous moments and triggering relieved laughter and a small flurry of photo-taking to boot, now it’s “allowed”.

The projector screen lights up to the right of the stage, showing a photo of an Arctic landscape. Over the course of the evening, the projector will show images from the laptop in front of James, triggered, we deduce, by a footswitch by Mr T himself : Taylor family photos, silent home movies and other images will be used to enhance an intimate series of autobiographical interludes between songs. This Arctic image, however, sets the scene for the next song, "The Frozen Man", inspired by a discovery in the 70s of a the remains of a sailor which had been almost perfectly preserved by the permafrost for 170 years, which was the sole justification the National Geographic magazine needed for rather disrespectfully exhuming the body’s resting place. James seems to have a faint difficulty on the high notes in this – I later learn that he’s had a throat problem which causes his voice to fail by tomorrow, although there’s little indication of the severity of this in tonight’s performance – and while we’re clapping him, he cracks open a bottle of water and drinks from it from the sports nozzle with the bottle held off to the side, in the same way that Popeye holds his pipe, and with a similar expression. :o) The story of the Frozen Man ties in nicely with his next song, as James shows us home photos of his mum and dad - we hear that his father was a tundra explorer, and was seldom at home during James’ childhood, leaving the raising of the JT siblings to his wife : it gives a different slant on the lyrics of the next number, “Mean Old Man”, and this theme of enhancing his songs through often frank and private biographical information will continue all evening. James sings “Mean Old Man” standing, with jacket off, sleeves rolled up and accompanied only by Larry Goldings on piano, and it sounds pretty good : he introduces Mr Goldings after this and lets him improvise some fills while JT crouches in the darkness checking and correcting his guitar tuning.

"On A Country Road" is the next song, the biggest hit so far and evoking a strong response from the Civic Hall audience, and then comes the first surprise of the evening. Mr Taylor tells us that when he planned a stripped-down, intimate tour, he wanted to avoid technical trappings, digital effects and, er, especially drum machines – “that was right out”, he says with a faint smile - and then proceeds to introduce the real reason why Bob wasn’t here to watch the gig, the Wooden Drum Machine. Pushed on by some hidden roadies, at first sight it’s like seeing the approach of an entry for Robot Wars, all hammers and rotating things : when started, it kicks off with a sparse, steady, almost martial beat on a handful of drums and cymbals, and while we’ve been watching the thing operating, James has risen from his seat, found from somewhere a small megaphone and is singing "Slap Leather" through it, while images on the projection screen of invading armies, their expensive hardware, and the decline of Western civilisation and morals mirror the lyrics of the song : the overall effect is far more unsettling than you would have expected. When it finishes and our appreciation has died down, James fixes the audience with a wry stare and says “We thought having a wooden drummer would solve the usual problems : but it was still late for the gig !” :o)

Another treat is next - "My Travelling Star", from the last CD “October Road”, which would normally require multi-tracked call-and-response harmonies throughout the song : James has solved this by videoing the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, a choir local to his home which his wife sings with, singing the background bits, and JT sings and plays the song with predominate success in timing his gaps with their recorded interludes. An intelligent solution to the problem of singing a song which needs background singing whilst on your own, and pretty hard to pull off in that it’s fundamentally different from accompanying a backing track, and it’s a big hit with the Civic Hall crowd. Next, Mr Taylor shows a montage of his early years on the LA folk scene : club venues, photos of himself and his musicians (one has him describe his image as “Joni Mitchell with a moustache”) which certainly feature a lot of hair… Also depicted was the lady in James’ life at the time, Carole King : JT tells how she selflessly gave him “You’ve Got a Friend” to sing after only just having written it with Gerry Goffin, which means, James says with clearly not-intended faux irony, “now I have to play it every night for the rest of my life.” So, he does. And it’s sweetly sung and exquisitely played to boot and earns him such a long round of applause that he seems embarrassed : it’s certainly easy to tell how much of a genuine, self-effacing professional he is from up close. Finally, James picks up his set list, a huge, dark flexible thing seemingly made from roofing felt or something – maybe to minimise the possibility of it being collected by eager souvenir hunters ? – and a lady punter upstairs in the balcony calls out a request for "The Water Is Wide" : JT says that it’s not on the list at the moment, but for the time being he’ll do "one that sounds exactly like it". :o) However, he’s having us on, as, in another of the evening’s firsts, he stands up and a scurrying roadie passes him a Fender Telecaster, which he straps on with amused looks in our direction, while we’re wondering what on Earth he’s going to do. It’s "Steamroller", played all tongue-in-cheek white man blues-rawk, all gurning and stage histrionics, with the Tele played with no pick a la Mark Knopfler : and it’s all to the delight of Steph, who two hours ago was listening to that track in our kitchen and we’d told her she was unlikely to hear it tonight because it needed a full band. :o)

When he’s finished, having clearly enjoyed himself, he delivers his familiar announcement of the half-time break, and says he’ll see us in twenty minutes. Well, you know that saying about the best-laid plans of mice and men ? Mr Taylor gets up to go for a towel down, and quick as a shot a bloke on the front row runs up to the edge of the stage and waves his ticket for a quick signature : ever the nice guy, James kneels down on the stage and duly signs for the punter, but by this time one or two more have come eagerly up to shake his hand and get their own signature. Within a minute there is a small crowd of 20 people before James, and Kay, Graham and my good self are among them, and even while we’re waiting for our turn the punters still keep coming : just as it’s my turn to pass my ticket to James, who’s still sweating from the on-stage lights, he seems to resign himself to his fate and moves from a kneeling- to a swinging-his-legs-off-the-edge-of-the-stage position. He signs my ticket and shakes my hand, and I scarper left out of the by now 50-strong crowd, emerging by an ice-cream salesman with a chest of ices who had set up stall at the middle of the stage but who is now buried in a swathe of James Taylor fans. On an impulse, I buy a tub of ice-cream for each of our party, all the while watching James sat on the edge of the stage to my right, happily and patiently frittering away his break glad-handing the punters and signing stuff : on a second impulse, I order an extra tub of vanilla and ask someone to pass it to the hard-working Mr Taylor. Receiving it, he looks round with a grin on his face and a pen poised above the lid of the tub as if to say “Who should I make this out to ?” :oD Giving him the thumbs up, I retire to my seat surprisingly happy – it’s not every day you get to buy an ice-cream for James Taylor, is it ? - watching James tolerantly signing stuff and exchanging words and handshakes with everyone who wants him. He’s still doing it after I find the rest of our party, pass the ice-creams over in exchange for some cider they’ve bought me, and found out that of all of us, Steph was the only one who didn’t dare go up (bless). Eventually, a guy who I assume is the tour manager comes out, pats him on the shoulder and, after a few more punters are satisfied, he makes the apologies that most other artistes would have done 20 minutes ago, gets up and strolls off stage-right to a warm and sympathetic round of applause in recognition of his kindness and friendliness. You don’t get THAT at the NEC.

The lights go down and, with hardly any time passed, Mr Taylor re-emerges, on the opposite side to the one he’s only just left from, to our frankly astonished applause ! He can barely have had enough time to go round the back of the back-stage curtains to the other side, let alone any comfort break – what a trouper. He sits down, checks to see if the guitar’s in, and part two of this extraordinary night begins with a fabulous rendition of "Secret O' Life", tightly controlled and mellow, which evokes strong and genuine approval from the Wolverhampton crowd. The applause peters out into laughter as a series of photos of Richard Milhous Nixon appear on screen, with him shaking hands with a few celebrities (the one of him and Elvis merits a few whimsical JT comments about sideburn length :o) and Taylor innocently explains to us that President Nixon resigned from office, remarking “it should happen more often…” to anti-Bush cheers around the room. Most of us know which song he’s introducing, however, as the next set of photos show a mass wedding being officiated over by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon : the song, of course, is “Line 'Em Up", deftly accompanied by pianist Larry Goldings, who has again snuck in unnoticed while the song’s introduction was underway. Uh-oh – under cover of our applause, the Wooden Drum Machine (at the end of the gig, JT will call it “The Great Shmoo”) rolls onstage again, this time banging out a more four-four time rhythm, having presumably been re-programmed by rearranging the triggering prongs on the rotating drum, and James re-dons his Telecaster for a rare, chugging version of “Chili Dog". 

"Shower The People" is next up, once more featuring the pre-filmed Tanglewood Festival Chorus on backing vocals : I’ve got “great picking” written down here and the timing is perfectly tight between JT’s clear, fine singing and his pre-recorded counterparts’, while Larry Goldings’ restrained accompaniment is a joy to listen to. At the end, James thanks Mr Goldings, and then acknowledges his “backing band” with a wave at the projection screen : the choir all raise their arms in unison and sweep them down towards James in a “We’re Not Worthy !” pre-taped grovelling. :o)

A silent home movie of a little boy running around a garden is now shown us – the little fellow pictured is the son of JT’s brother, who was Christened ‘James’ after his uncle : this is the sweet baby, James, for whom Mr Taylor wrote a Gene Autrey style cowboy song while driving down to see his new nephew all those years ago : something I didn’t know which I’m the wiser for after this interesting evening of insights into James Taylor’s life. Having introduced it as completely as no-one else could, he proceeds to play us a lovely, exquisite "Sweet Baby James" – you can hear, ever so quietly around the room, the audience gently singing along before the final chords trigger the loudest explosion of applause yet. But the private revelations aren’t over yet – James now shows some photos of Formentera, a Balearic island he visited in the ’60s which was then undeveloped and unspoiled and where he had a short relationship with a young girl named Karen : memorable enough to distract him from feelings of homesickness for his Carolina home, and enough for him to write a song about as well. James never had a photo of this girl, and so has asked a professional artist to sketch one from his description : giving us the details he can remember, he prepares us to see the finished sketch, finally popping the atmosphere by instead projecting a drawing of a rather cross-eyed, jug-eared individual ! The real likeness of Karen, however, taken from memories thirty years old of a blonde girl never seen again, evokes a gently exhaled “aahhh” from the audience when he shows us. Karen, she’s a silver sun… Having casually thrown the most intimate revelation of the evening at us, James picks up his guitar and plays us "Carolina In My Mind", all the more breathtaking for the build-up, and a sledgehammer of an emotional moment for him to deliver the last song of the set, bow while people are applauding and stroll off.

There’s a brief period of sustained clapping while James is, after all, having his first real break of the entire night, and then he and Larry Goldings stride back on for a frankly splendid “Fire And Rain”, sensitively picked and clearly and sweetly song by tonight’s consummate entertainer, and featuring a droned accompaniment from Goldings on harmonium in the quieter end section too. James makes as if to go off but stops at the piano to discuss tactics, and returns to honour his first-half promise by singing the requested "The Water Is Wide", and to finally end the encores, and the night, with "Copperline". The final “first” of the night is left till the very last note, where James, getting his barre finger stuck sliding up over the fret to make the final chord, plays an absolute stinker of a bum note ! – a rare event indeed (Graham and I, with over 10 different James Taylor shows between us, have never ever seen him make a mistake !), but only to be expected from a 59-year-old guy who’s played nearly 20 songs without a break at that level and quality. And then he’s up, shyly and self-consciously acknowledging our gratitude and the show is over - but even on his way off, a handful of people who missed out in the interval scurry up to the front for quick autographs and James doesn’t deny them : happily, after our encouraging her, this time Steph is one of them, sharing a few words at the end of a remarkable night with a performer she wouldn’t have even dreamed she would be seeing two days ago. A fairytale ending to, frankly, a genuine night to cherish in your memory, in the presence of a towering artist and musician sharing his personal insights and outstanding songs with his UK fanbase.