, May 24, 2024

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James Taylor in My Mind and Live in Manila


  •   8 min reads
James Taylor in My Mind and Live in Manila
By Eduardo C. Tadem

When I told my research team of millennials at the University of the Philippines that Tesa and I were going to watch a concert by James Taylor, I was met with blank stares and polite smiles that seemed to say, “James who?” 

So, I asked Janus Nolasco to accompany me on guitar while I sang “You’ve Got a Friend.” It sounded a tad familiar to the kids but only because the song had been used as a backdrop for some silly cartoon or other. But when I got to Taylor’s big hit, “Fire and Rain,” I received the same disinterested reaction.

James Taylor has sold over 100 million albums throughout his career, including 40 gold, diamond certified and multiplatinum albums. These include his “Greatest Hits” 1976, “Sweet Baby James” 1970, “Mud Slide Slim” 1971 and “JT” 1977. Amazingly, his latest album, “American Standards,” reached #4 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and #1 on several other Billboard charts in 2020.

In addition, he has six Grammy Awards spanning a 51-year period from 1970 to 2021. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2000), and the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame (2000). He has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2015), Kennedy Center Honors (2016) and Billboard Magazine’s Century Award (their highest honor) in 1998.

Getting the damned tickets

It was therefore with bated breath and thrilled anticipation that I decided to purchase two tickets for “An Evening with James Taylor and his All-Star Band” scheduled for April 8, 2024. Fearing the “nosebleed” section where vertigo could set in, I went for “lower box” seats. The ticket price was too high for comfort but Tesa and I decided to make a one-time splurge for the rare opportunity to listen in person to this global icon of folk and rock music.

The online process was a breeze and I was issued a voucher that I was supposed to present at a shopping mall in order to get printed tickets. That was where the trials and tribulations began.

Four times over a period of three weeks I went to the mall to collect our tickets, only to be informed each time that their internet service was down and no tickets could be issued. When I tried to call to save myself the trouble of going to the mall, I found that all the mall’s phones in all its Metro Manila branches were not working. It baffles me how a shopping mall complex owned by the country’s top billionaire family could not get their internet and phones working for a whole three weeks. 

We were thus left with the option of showing up at the concert venue with our vouchers and lining up to get our tickets. Luckily, the queue was not that long and we finally got our precious tickets. At the entrances, the usual security checks were made. I was surprised to be told that my steel water tumbler could not be allowed in. I had to check it in and was given a number tag. Was this a ploy to force us to purchase bottled water inside the concert venue? 

Political views

James Taylor’s first Manila concert was in March 1994 at the Folk Arts Theater. He scheduled a concert for Feb. 25, 2017, at the same venue, but ended up canceling it due to concerns about the human rights situation in the Philippines at that time, particularly on the antidrug campaign of then President Rodrigo Duterte. 

He posted this Twitter message on Dec. 21, 2016: “I’ve been eagerly looking forward to playing for my Philippine audience ever since we added Manila to our tour of the Pacific this coming February. So, it saddens me to cancel our concert there. I don’t think of my music as being particularly political but sometimes one is called to make a political stand.

“The scourge of addiction is a world-wide problem and does serious harm, not only to the addict but to our society. For a sovereign nation to prosecute and punish, under the law, those responsible for the illegal trade in drugs is, of course, understandable, even commendable; but recent reports from the Philippines of summary executions of suspected offenders without trial or judicial process are deeply concerning and unacceptable to anyone who loves the rule of law.

“I offer my heartfelt apologies for any inconvenience or disappointment this may cause my Filipino friends.” 

It was not the first time for James Taylor to take a political stance. A “progressive Democrat” by self-ascription, he threw his support behind the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton while sparing no words in mercilessly berating Donald Trump. 

In an interview in Rolling Stone magazine published on Nov. 7, 2016, Taylor said of Trump: “This guy isn’t Hitler—this guy is Mussolini. You’ve got this world-class narcissist who is inept, corrupt, and opaque. This is a sort of a puffed-up, self-absorbed, all-hat-and-no-cattle cowboy. All style and no content. We don’t know who the guy is. You don’t know if you can believe anything he ever says because he changes his mind so consistently. He’s more frequently dishonest than he is honest. It’s so baffling to me why people who feel this disenfranchised would choose as their champion this particular specimen. It almost feels like an act of random and wanton destruction to vote for him.” 

In the same interview Taylor talked of his concerns for real electoral reform, the clampdown on immigration, and the conservatism of the Supreme Court. He voiced his support for equal pay for equal work, raising the minimum wage, gay and gender rights, and not going to war.

But enough of James Taylor’s political views. They never defined his public persona, anyway. It’s good to know, though, that an artist of his caliber and influence didn’t shy away from taking a political position when the times called for it. 

The concert in Manila

The concert at the Mall of Asia Arena started on time with a front act by a nameless but highly competent band of local performers headed by the irrepressible Ice Seguerra whose powerful but soothing voice effortlessly delighted the crowd. Activist Noel Cabangon provided social meaning with songs like “Tatsulok (Pyramid),” a protest against social inequality. This front act lasted a long 40 minutes but the crowd didn’t seem to mind even though Ice and Noel kept reminding themselves to hurry up with their act so as not to tax the Arena’s patience.

A long half-hour after the front act, James Taylor and his All Star Band finally came on stage. They were met by exuberant applause, excited shrieks and other forms of verbal homage from an entranced audience of about 15,000 even before a single note could be sung. With an acoustic guitar strung around his back, Taylor bounced in, clad in an off-white blazer that hung loosely over his gangly 6’3” frame. The Band was composed of three vocalists (one of whom also played a fiddle), a keyboard player, a drummer, a pedal-pushing lead guitarist, and a bass guitarist. In the course of the show, Taylor would introduce each one intermittently.

Perched on a high stool and picking on his guitar, Taylor started slow with “Something in the Way She Moves,” a catchy song about the captivating essence of a woman’s presence, her physical grace and allure. With no pause, “That’s Why I’m Here” came next, a reflection on Taylor’s journey through fame in the music industry but also a declaration of love and commitment for someone through thick and thin.

The underrated “Anywhere Like Heaven” is one of my personal favorites, an expression of longing for a peaceful and idyllic place of contentment and an escape from life’s pressures. Not missing a beat, “Never Die Young” came on, a reflection on mortality, a poignant plea to stay young forever and savor life’s beauty.

Early on it became immediately clear to all that James Taylor’s talents are undiminished, his voice retaining its full timbre, crystal clarity and robust fullness, all of which have enthralled and captivated millions of fans worldwide since the 1970s. 

“Country Road” is a look back at simple life roaming the countryside, a return to one’s roots and savoring freedom and adventure. Changing tack, Taylor turned political with “Fiddle and Drum,” a powerful Joni Mitchell composition about the state of the world and delves into themes of war, injustice, and the human condition and the role of art to inspire action and activism. 

Sing-along

The introductory bars of “Sweet Baby James” brought loud applause and cheers of recognition from the crowd, and almost everyone started singing along. The lullaby melody was written for Taylor’s nephew and evoked themes of comfort, tenderness and protection on a life’s journey about to begin. I normally hate it when people sing-along at a concert, but this time and in succeeding songs, it all sounded natural and quite pleasing to the ear. 

Rappler

“Handyman” is a humorous portrait of someone able to fix broken hearts except his own. Another crowd sing-along favorite was “Long Ago and Far Away,” a song about a lost love and its memories. “Mexico” is a longing to escape to a carefree life in a tropical paradise. “Carolina in My Mind” is a fan favorite which expresses homesickness for one’s native land and a simpler life. 

Shifting to blues in “Steamroller,” which is about being overwhelmed by life’s challenges and maintaining hope, Taylor abandoned the comfort of his stool, pranced onstage, and added a mean harmonica solo.

“Fire and Rain” is one of Taylor’s biggest hits and a song that is most personal, reflecting his struggles with addiction, loss, and loneliness. Once again it was sing-along time for the Manila crowd. “Up on the Roof” is about finding peace and solace amidst urban chaos and noise. The bouncy rock of “Shower the People” is about spreading love and kindness to others, and the similarly fast-paced “Your Smiling Face” celebrates the joy and warmth one finds in a loved one’s smile. It was the 16th song of the night and officially ended “The Evening with James Taylor.” The whole band unceremoniously left the stage.

Not to be fooled, the crowd rose and continued clapping and cheering. After about two minutes, Taylor and his band returned. Saying “We can’t end the show without singing this,” and to the crowd’s absolute delight, Taylor sang his biggest hit, Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” a classic anthem of friendship, comfort, support and reassurance. 

Then with the crowd still on its feet and cheering wildly, he performed two more encores: “How Sweet It Is,” a joyful celebration of love and happiness, and, finally the reassuring “You Can Close Your Eyes,” a lullaby with wishes for a peaceful night’s sleep. 

That final song ensured that everyone who came for the concert would find their way home peacefully and have a restful night ahead. 

Did I mention that James Taylor turned 76 last March, and that he performed for a full hour and a half without any break? His 2024 world tour is taking him to 14 concerts in Japan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand in April and May. In the United States, he will perform in 36 concerts in 22 cities from May to September. 

Most of the descriptions of James Taylor’s Manila concert setlist were generated through Gemini AI and Open AI.

First published in CoverStory.ph. You can read the original article here.  


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