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A Twain-style troubadour

James Taylor is downright loquacious on his solo tour.

February 22, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

BARACK OBAMA wasn't the only visitor to Los Angeles who looked like a presidential candidate on Tuesday. Just as the senator pressed the flesh with supporters at an afternoon rally, there was James Taylor reaching down to shake hands and sign autographs for fans during his concert at the Wilshire Theatre -- not just in a brief, token gesture, but in prolonged encounters that occurred at several points during the evening.

The archetypal introspective singer-songwriter of American music has never been as somber and austere as his public image might suggest. But at this opening night of his four-show engagement, he seemed hellbent on redefining himself, not just as a man of the people but also as a full-on humorist. He might have reminisced about singing at the Troubadour, but this was more like an audition for the Laugh Factory.

Befitting the raconteur traditions of his New England and North Carolina roots, Taylor spent much of the two-hour concert delivering elaborate, carefully structured and precisely timed shaggy dog stories.

One started with President Nixon's resignation and his "untelegenic walk," and went on to the Moonie wedding in Madison Square Garden -- two events that figure in the song "Line 'Em Up." Whimsical tangents also punctuated the long tale behind "Frozen Man," and Taylor also came up with a novel way to describe his youthful romance with Joni Mitchell.

The occasion for the frivolity is Taylor's first solo tour in some 30 years (almost solo, actually, since he's accompanied by keyboardist Larry Goldings). The break from the usual full-band concert format has apparently inspired all sorts of twists on Taylor's part.

The song list ignored most of his hits and included such lesser-known pieces as "Chili Dog." The stage was dominated by candlelit chandeliers and a wooden room divider with stained glass-style windows, and the singer was twice accompanied by a drum machine (let's just say that Taylor's idea of a drum machine is not the same as Timbaland's).

He also operated a foot pedal to display film clips and photographs, both personal and historic. "You pay for an evening of entertainment," the singer said, "and somebody shows you their damn scrapbook."

NOT that the music was an afterthought, exactly. Along with the comedy monologues, Taylor also offered stories behind the writing of songs such as "Sweet Baby James" and "Carolina in My Mind." He might be rooted in the East, but he has an L.A. history too, and his reminiscences about Troubadour engagements in the '70s, and his homage to Pink's hot dog stand, roused murmurs of recognition in the Wilshire audience.

Taylor was less interested in using this opportunity to explore the darkness behind some other material -- he played "Fire and Rain" as his first encore, without comment about the personal demons that inspired it.

Still, the informational anecdotes and humorous setups enhanced the experience of hearing the songs, compensating in a way for the missing arrangements.

Taylor was joined, on film and sound recording, by members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus on two songs, but mostly it was just piano and acoustic guitar. Stripped down, Taylor's material revealed a structural strength and a design ingenuity that belies its surface simplicity, but the range of rhythm and tonal color is narrow, and a straight-faced recital of this material could easily become monotonous.

So an image makeover seems like the perfect solution, both for the sake of his performance and for his ultimate place in history. I've seen fire and I've seen rain, he seems to be saying, but I've also seen chili dogs.


James Taylor

Where: Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Price: $49.50 to $99.50 (sold out)

Info: (323) 655-0111

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