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James Taylor in Manila: Songs of Comfort for Older but (Hopefully) Wiser Souls

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James Taylor in Manila: Songs of Comfort for Older but (Hopefully) Wiser Souls
Mong Pintolo Instagram
By Joey Salgado

I first heard James Taylor in 1976, when I was in second year high school.

I wore my hair longish, long enough to look cool without getting in trouble with our class adviser. It was the year I started to learn to play the guitar. I didn’t have a guitar of my own, couldn’t afford one.

I borrowed guitars from friends or neighbors, not discriminating between a nylon stringed guitar, which was easy on the fingertips, or a battered locally-made jumbo passed from tambay to tambay with steel strings bought from the neighborhood hardware store.

The words to James Taylor’s songs were easy to remember. Long ago a young man sits and plays his waiting game. Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone. These weren’t songs, I told myself; they were stories. Sad stories. I was entering my introspective young man phase, typical Piscean mood swing. Taylor’s songs came to me at the right time.

The chords were easy too, but playing them in the style of Taylor was another matter. You needed to learn hammer-ons, and use a capo on fret III or V, stuff that, when you showed your musically clueless friends, made them go, ahhh.

After two spins of a borrowed copy of Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” and a week-long immersion in the pages of Jingle chordbook magazine, I sat in front of my class, a pimply, scrawny 14-year old, and sang about sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground. To the girls who cared to listen, that was me saying, I’m a sensitive guy. The boys, on the other hand, wanted to hear “Stairway to Heaven.”

Taylor’s songs take you back to specific times and places, as all good songs do.

With the passing of the years and the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, you hear these songs differently, familiar lyrics with new wisdoms to offer. You can close your eyes, it’s all right. Up on the roof, it’s peaceful as can be. I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.

“Ayan na, Steamroller na!”

When a roadie handed Taylor a green Telecaster after a rousing rendition of “Country Road” at the Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena last April 8, the guy seated behind me told his companions, “Ayan na, Steamroller na! ”. I can totally relate. I have no idea why the song had that effect on him, but, hey, I feel you, man.

“Steamroller Blues” is Taylor’s send up to white-guy blues posturing. It is a parody song, deliberately sloppy and middling. But on stage that night, Taylor and the members of his All-Star Band - Dean Parks on guitar, Jimmy Johnson on bass, Kevin Hays on piano, and the legendary Steve Gadd on drums - delivered a rave up. Taylor brought the song to church with a blues solo on harmonica, capping the white-hot performance with a spirited jump, one of several for that evening.

By then, Taylor had already played 11 classic hit songs before an adoring crowd, mostly baby boomers who braved the heat, traffic, and the late hours to listen to one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time.

The 76-year old Taylor did not disappoint.

Yes, his vocal range is now limited, and the voice faltered at times. But on most songs the sweet and mellow tenor was still there, resonating throughout the arena; telling stories and jokes, singing songs of loss and doubt, redemption and comfort for his loyal fans.

There were no deep cuts (I would have loved to hear “Blossom” or “Sunny Skies”), no guitar wanking or lengthy on-stage preaching. Just a singer-songwriter performing an intimate set for some 15,000 people.

Sing-Along Moments

If you’ve seen his concerts on DVD and You Tube, you’d know that Taylor’s shows have always been sing-along moments. Of course, every concert in Manila is an occasion for mass sing-alongs, but this night hit differently.

The boomers and Gen Xers in the audience lived through an epochal period. The 70s and the 80s were years of unrest and uncertainty, hardships leading to triumphs and disappointments.

They lived through these times and survived while dealing with their own turmoils and demons, the same turmoils and demons that Taylor, especially in his early years, dealt with and sang about. 

Some of his songs became personal anthems, the lyrics and chords flowing effortlessly from muscle memory. 

That night at the MOA Arena, Taylor presided over a gathering of older but hopefully wiser souls, taking them back to times when one can find comfort and meaning in songs: “Shower the People,” “Sweet Baby James,” “Carolina in my Mind,” “You Can Close Your Eyes,” “Long Ago and Far Away (with an audio cameo by a young Joni Mitchell),”  “Country Road,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Handy Man,” “Your Smiling Face,” “Up on the Roof,” “How Sweet it Is.” 

When Taylor began to play the opening chords to “Fire and Rain,” the house lights dimmed and as if on cue, the crowd turned on their cellphone flashlights, shining them in Taylor’s direction. They sang along to Taylor’s autobiographical song of loss and longing, some trying not to shed a tear. It was a moment when artist and audience became one.

FANCAM of the entire concert

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