He's the same old, laid-back James Taylor, and his fans thank him for that

August 20, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

James Taylor didn't sing at the original Woodstock. Hard to have imagined "Fire and Rain" or "Sweet Baby James" going over big with the mud set. James Taylor didn't sing at Woodstock last week, either.

James sings tonight at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. I'll be there on the lawn because this is what I do. We must maintain our passionate habits. James Taylor is my habit.

I've seen his act before. Eight times. Oct. 25, 1975, was the first time. He sang at the University of Florida's gym, which had all the acoustics and comfort of a rain gutter. Tickets were $5.

James slunk out and played a slow one, maybe "Blossom." Then he played 21 other songs, including Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee." I remember this because I remember asking myself, "Where the heck is Muskogee?"

Someone during the concert shouted, "Where's Carly?" Those were the days when we thought maybe she would saunter out from off-stage and they would sing "Mockingbird." He'd be all sheepish, and she would be all sexy. Talk about the Camelot couple.

That night, Carly wasn't there. James was alone, but he was with us. He wore a plain, white T-shirt; I think his belt missed a loop. He did a little dancing, well, more like clogging. His gangly awkwardness was so square it was hip. He talked like a country boy, although he had long left the "country" of North Carolina, where he was reared.

In the university's gym, he sang a new song called "Shower the People." He didn't have his band with him, so he recorded the vocal harmonies on a tape recorder, which stood at attention stage left. Using a foot pedal, he activated the tape recorder when he needed back-up singing. He bantered with himself on tape.

James opened his concert by saying, "Hi." Like goofy sheep, we said "Hi" back. He introduced songs by saying, "Here's another song." Women shouted, "WE LOVE YOU JT!!!" He said "Gee, thanks."

That's the thing with James in concert. Somehow, he's singing ** to you and even sees you in the audience. His fans -- people who call him only James -- fall for him every time. When he sings "You've Got a Friend" -- a song he didn't write but owns -- they feel like they have a friend. Then, they snap out of it and admit nothing to no one.

James Taylor is 46 now. He doesn't play gyms anymore. His concert tickets are a wee bit more than $5.

Gone is most of his hair, gone is some of his eyesight, gone is the tape recorder, gone is the heroin habit, gone are the Rolling Stone cover stories on him, gone is the steady radio play, and long gone is Carly.

In Columbia tonight, he'll come out alone and play a slow one, maybe something off his signature album, "Sweet Baby James." His terrific band will then trickle out to join him. Men in the crowd will sing along, but almost inaudibly. Women bearing roses and other gifts will come to the stage between songs. "Thanks," he'll probably say. We'll applaud.

He'll sing his old hits the same way, but he'll spruce up other ones, such as the reborn "Country Road." For those who think he hasn't written anything good since 1975, he'll probably sing recent tunes "Frozen Man" and "Copperline." People will cheer these songs, too.

My educated guess is he will not sing "Okie from Muskogee." He will probably dress up more than he did at his 1975 concert, although not too much more. No one will shout for Carly.

James will dance a lick or two. Every note he could ever hit, he will hit again without fail.

And, as always, he'll see me in the crowd.

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