A Musicares Person of the Year Tribute

A Musicares Person of the Year Tribute A Musicares Person of the Year Tribute
James Taylor with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Alison Krauss, India.Arie and others
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

Tributes to music giants can either make you want to shed tears or draw blood. “A Musicares Person of the Year Tribute to James Taylor” is the former, a worthy salute to one of folk-rock’s icons. Taylor has spent nearly four decades making us happy - it’s nice to see his peers returning the favor.

The Dixie Chick’s open the concert with a healthy dose southern grace, performing “Shower the People.” Natalie Maines is tentative and helium-voiced at first, but when Emily Robison and Martie Maguire kick in on back up vocals she quickly gains her footing. By the end of the tune, which shifts smoothly from country to gospel, the diminutive lead singer’s voice is echoing through the hall. Not even the completely over-the-top intrusion of back up singer Arnold McCuller deters the performance. An added bonus is a controlled, sweeping fiddle solo by Maguire.

A haggard looking Bonnie Raitt is up next, singing “Rainy Day Man,’ a song of Taylor’s she’s made her own. Raitt looks and sounds bored through the first few lines, singing hoarsely. She perks up considerably, smiling when she notices Michael Landau’s tasty guitar accompaniment. From then on, Raitt displays the impeccable bluesy pipes we’ve come to admire her for.

India.Arie deserves some recognition for taking on “Secret O’ Life,” one of Taylor’s most intimate songs. An acknowledged fan of Taylor’s, a nervous Arie carries a handbag with Taylor’s picture embossed on the side on stage, thus automatically endearing her to the crowd. Good thing she brought the bag, because her attempt to turn “Secret O’ Life” into breathy R & B fails. She’s occasionally lags behind the arrangement or charges ahead of it. Taylor’s back up band, comprised of world beating musicians including Stephen Gadd (drums), Jimmy Johnson (bass) and Luis Conte (percussion) manage to keep Arie relatively on track. She also seems to be suffering from a Joe Cocker affectation, unknowingly waving her arms as if to escape. Too bad she can’t.

Arie is followed by David Crosby, Jackson Browne and Heidi Fleiss. No, wait, that’s Sheryl Crow, who makes Arie look like a season pro. Crowe reads, yes reads, the lyrics to “Mexico” from the teleprompter, her eyes darting back and forth with such frequency she looks like she’s watching the Dayton 500. Crosby takes a peak or two at the words as well, but he doesn’t let the audience see him sweat. Crow does. Browne smiles throughout, just happy to be there. Crosby and Browne’s backing vocals and the south of the border atmosphere Walter Flower provides on trumpet help rescue the performance.

Sting makes the mistake of taking on the gentle ballad “You Can Close Your Eyes” completely solo. Sting seems to be channeling fellow countryman John Martyn, determined to show the audience he’s a virtuoso on guitar -- and he is. Unfortunately his voice is shot and his harsh, whispered vocal saps the song of its tenderness.

Trouble looms when Taj Mahal and Dr. John take the stage. These days Taj is looking like the building he takes his name from, and the walking stick the Doctor once used as a prop is now being used to prop him up. But the two wily vets deliver one of the tribute’s best performances, stomping New Orleans-style through “Everybody Loves the Blues.” Taj initially suffers from the same hoarseness that scuttled Sting, but he coaxes a gritty funky, first-rate performance out of himself, and riffs like B.B. King on guitar to boot. Dr. John feeds off of Taj’s show-stopping vibe, playing a jolly barrel-house solo on piano.

The most impressive performance belongs to the relatively unknown Alison Krauss. Unlike the Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban, who mix their country with rock and pop, Kraus is more true to her traditional roots. Accompanied by band mate Jerry Douglas on dobro, Krauss performs a stunning version of “Carolina In My Mind,” throwing in a few effective licks of her own on fiddle. Unlike some of the earlier performers, her voice never wavers, cracks or flattens out, staying molasses-sweet throughout. You get the feeling it’s impossible for her to sing a bad or false note. I’m no fan of country music, but I replayed Krauss’ performance at least three times. The more I heard her flawless delivery, the more impressed I was. Check out her tranquil cover versions of the Beatles “I Will,” Todd Rundgren’s “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” and especially the Foundation’s “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” on CD and I think you’ll agree.

Mr. Nicole Kidman, Aussie country stud muffin Keith Urban, shows impressive skills as a guitarist on “Country Road.” He’s a passable singer, displaying a surprisingly timid, thin voice, but hey, a lot of guitar players (Robbie Robertson, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, please take note) should never go near a mike. He draws an admiring grin from drummer Stephen Gadd when the two of them face off, leading the band on extended jam. Urban is dealing with stardom issues right now (alcoholism, I’d drink to if I was married to Nicole Kidman), but when he gets out of rehab, watch for him.

Bruce Springsteen’s standing as a living legend takes a serious hit with his grungy, angry and downright criminal take on “Millworker.” Blasting into his harp like he’s on a respirator, Springsteen spits out the lyrics. Springsteen’s delivery has always made him sound constipated. Here he sounds like he’s singing at a tribute to someone he hates, rather than loves. C’mon Bruce, this isn’t punk-folk.

Carole King rights the ship with an emotional performance of “You’ve Got a Friend,” a song she wrote that provided Taylor with one of his biggest hits. The two often played together on each other’s early albums (King plays piano throughout Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” and “Mud Slide Slim;” he appears on King’s “Tapestry,”and “Music”.) Taylor surprises King by joining her on stage for the final verse. Thirty-five years down the road and the chemistry between them is still impressive to watch and even better to listen to.

The best performance is saved for last. Fittingly, the performance is Taylor’s. Taylor unleashes a trio of songs, beginning with “Shed a Little Light,” his tribute to Martin Luther King. It’s not a great song, but it is a great performance. Abetted by David Lasley, Arnold McCuller, Andrea Zonn and Kate Markowitz on vocals, the obscure gospel-tinged tribute takes wing. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Taylor’s voice has aged with grace, which is in evidence in his second performance, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” With all the life-changing gems Taylor has written over his career, his tepid, radio-friendly remake of a Marvin Gaye tune seems like an odd choice. Taylor offers up an explanation before launching into the song, saying, “It’s how the evening makes me feel.” He pours his love and appreciation into the song, far outstripping the studio version. Taylor’s energized performance brings out the best in the band as well, particularly Lou Marini, whose sax solo smolders with buttery soul. Taylor’s brother Livingston, a notable performer in his own right, joins in for a verse and spends the rest of the song dancing like a loon on stage with Taylor’s youngest children, much to the delight of the crowd.

The tribute concludes with Taylor’s signature tune, “Fire and Rain.” The tempo is a little slower, more reflective, but after 35 years, aren’t we all? It’s an excellent, melancholy rendition, deserving of the standing ovation it receives.

“A Musicares Person of the Year Tribute to James Taylor” may be a long title, but it’s also long on enjoyment, and you may get your first listen to unappreciated artists like Alison Krauss and Keith Urban. Looking for an enjoyable way to spend a chilly Sunday afternoon? Pay tribute to Sweet Baby James.

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