Sunday, July 4, 2010

Hymns for Agnostics

"Say hi to 1972 for me." That's what a friend texted me when I told him I was at Tanglewood seeing a James Taylor/Carole King concert. And while I think none of the songs played was newer than say, 1980, the show was not a nostalgia fest. When Taylor preambled a pair of songs by describing them as "Hymns for Agnostics" -- King's "Way Over Yonder" and his "Shower the People" -- I realized why 18,000 fans had flocked there.

For many in my generation, rock music has usurped the role of religion. There is a lot more messianic fervor at a Bruce Springsteen show than at most services I have been to. The generation's singer-songwriters like King and Taylor -- Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young -- were bards and prophets. I am not sure who today's are, or if they will ever have the same cultural impact. The distribution of mainstream music has gotten diffused, but also, the sentiments that Taylor and King espouse -- whether the joys or sorrows -- are so raw and personal, they don't seem as possible in today's jaded world.

The subtext of the whole tour was
the musical friendship and mutual respect and inspiration these two gave to each other (crystallized in their trading verses of King's "You've Got a Friend" and "Up on the Roof" in their distinctive styles). King said she didn't have the guts to write music and lyrics by herself till she met Taylor. They kept passing off intros to each other saying "And then he[she] wrote...."

There was something organically stirring about them touring with their "original band" -- from the photo above, Leland Sklar on bass (lower right) and Danny Kortchmar on guitar (upper left) as well as drummer Russ Kunkel (not in photo) - who I am pretty sure I also saw at Tanglewood in the 70's, playing with Jackson Browne. And the fact that Tanglewood is virtually in Taylor's back yard made it seem like a sweet homecoming for a man who has been through it all -- drug addiction, depression, electro-shock therapy, even divorce.

But what was most impressive about Taylor (62) and King (68!)  was not that their voices and playing were still in fine form, but that they were reinventing their songs and investing them with new dynamism. Taylor improvised enough from the familiar melodies that people shut up their singalongs to listen. And King joyfully romped around the stage for "Natural Woman" and "I Feel the Earth Move" despite wearing three-inch heels.

At the very end of the night they sang "You Can Close Your Eyes" from Taylor's 1971 album Mud Slide Slim, a song I had long forgotten, because it doesn't get airplay or land on greatest hits albums. Just the two of them sat on stage, and when they sang
I don't know no love songs,
and I can't sing the blues any more.
But I can sing this song,
and you can sing this song
when I'm gone.
and King put her head on his shoulder, it was like a benediction for each other, for the crowd, and for a generation. And suddenly "agnostic" didn't seem like the right word.


jeff said...

yup, you got it.

Sal Nunziato said...

My initial thoughts on this show were not all bad. I was mostly turned off by yet another expensive package at a time when "expensive packages" seem offensive. But I am very sorry I missed it based on not just your great review, but just about everyone's great reviews.

James Watt said...

David: lovely review of two good friends who love the music as much as you do. I share your sense that it's hard not to think that the current malaise hasn't affected the younger singers and song writers. But as you're aware, the music business is never, ever going to be like it used to be --and for a multitude of reasons, not least the very medium we're in right now. But don't despair of a lack of prophets. I can think of several new voices and talents that give me great hope for the years to come: I'm thinking, off the top of my head, about Darrell Scott's "Colorado" or "The Day Before Thanksgiving," or "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today" by the Be Good Tanyas, or "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free" by the incredible Derek Trucks Band, or "True" by Derek's wife, Susan Tedeschi, whose pipes are already magnificent and she's barely forty, if that! And what about Keb Mo? Or Lucinda Williams? Or Patty Griffin? There are still people who love to sing and even more who love to listen.

David Handelman said...

Thanks Jim. I look forward to acquiring those songs anon.