James Taylor in Manila redux, 30 years later

BLITZ REVIEW - Juaniyo Arcellana - The Philippine Star
James Taylor in Manila redux, 30 years later
Seven years after the cancellation of his much-anticipated concert in Manila, six-time Grammy award winner James Taylor performs his hit songs at the SM MOA Arena with his All-Star Band.
Photo by Geremy Pintolo

There are few musicians and artists worth watching a second time, not just because of the prohibitive price of tickets, but James Taylor must be one of them. His music and words have held up well through the years, his wisdom vintage, nostalgia not necessarily a peg for his loyal listeners that filled the Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena on April 8, the eve of Bataan Day and across the ocean in his own country, a total solar eclipse.

Of course, we were there in 1994 at Folk Arts Theater when he first played Manila, another full house, but curiously there is little that stands out due to the fog of memory, and the audience filing out afterwards including a young filmmaker at the time. It took 30 years for the sequel to happen, set back after Taylor’s early 2017 playdate here was canceled as the musician was reportedly spooked by the so-called drug war of the past administration.

Good things come to those who wait, not least to Taylor and his fans that turned MOA Arena into one giant folk house and speakeasy, no rushing him or them through 18 well-loved songs that made a roller coaster of the years, making most listeners there that night realize that, to paraphrase the lyrics of one of his songs, the secret to growing old is learning how to take things calmly.

Something in the Way She Moves, the song Taylor said he was first comfortable with performing in public and used for his audition at Apple studios for two Beatles, started things on the right foot. The early part of the set included title songs from two of his later albums, Never Die Young and That’s Why I’m Here.

The pedal steel guitar of Dean Parks makes its presence felt in Anywhere Like Heaven, about walking through the city streets and looking into your eyes, a favorite theme of Taylor’s, beloved of solitude but not really, there’s always the guitar to tag along, in this wise bearing images of Nashville and the south country.

Taylor introduces his All-Star Band gradually, after Parks there was Steve Gadd, who kept time on the skins with just the right mix of restraint and Dionysian abandon, finally we get to hear where the drum solo in Steely Dan’s Aja came from.

Personally, I most enjoyed the lesser-known songs but still with profound impact — Carolina in My Mind, Handyman, even the old Carole King and Gerry Goffin song Up on the Roof.

Carolina in My Mind could well accompany a reading of Granta 162, Definitive Narratives of Escape, a gift from the elder brother who first brought the albums Sweet Baby James and Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon to the ancestral house on Maginhawa in the early ‘70s, at the onset of an adolescence that lasted anywhere like heaven.

Handyman from the JT album first seen in a record bar at the side of Fiesta Carnival in Cubao, during the rambles of young adulthood and hormones raging. Up on the Roof beholding a view of the city at night, perhaps when things appear at their most real.

Long and Ago and Faraway has Joni Mitchell’s backup vocals lifted by the bassist Jimmy Johnson from the original recording, resulting in a kind of audio hologram of the grand dame that is quite hair-raising, amazing what technology can do in this half a century time lapse of backing vocals of where rainbows end and dreaming the dream my friend.

“To love is just a word I heard when things are being said,” Taylor sings, and nothing can cut closer to the bone, approximate the truth of the matter. Sometimes you don’t even have to say a word, and Taylor as musician understands that, if anyone can surely he will. The evening wraps up in acoustic mode as well, You Can Close Your Eyes, the last of encores, a song as parting gift of the singer.

The other all-stars put in good work too: Keyboardist Kevin Hayes who stretches proceedings with impromptu freeform jams, backup vocalists Kate Markowitz, Dorian Holley whose chops are reminiscent of the Isleys and Nevilles, and Andrea Zonn also on fiddle, also an American endemic instrument like the pedal steel guitar.

It took 30 years but boomers bounce back well, the distance and the music of spheres that have never felt closer teaching us to observe things calmly, sort of like a combination of zen and judo, despite a stuck elevator filled with seniors enroute to the MOA bridgeway pre-show.

Then who should we see afterwards among the milling late-night throng but the youngest Guillermo and wife whose family in the ‘70s set up a magazine to teach youngsters to play guitar during martial law. To paraphrase Brecht, what else can one do but sing of the dark years — you have to survive them first — and Taylor’s music has more than helped us make a stand.

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