Nothing says "summer in the Berkshires" more than a James Taylor concert at Tanglewood. Tonight and Friday, Taylor returns for a pair of 8 p.m. performances at the Shed -- annual concerts that have become one of the Berkshires' most anticipated Fourth of July weekend traditions.
The Eagle's Clarence Fanto recently had the opportunity to ask Taylor about the current tour, his upcoming album and what might be in store tonight and Friday.
Q: Though you've taken breaks from touring in the past, what was it like saddling up for the current 40-stop tour? Was it Gene Autry who sang "Back in the Saddle Again" before you and I were born?
J.T.: I think it was Gene Autry who wrote that back in the ‘30s. My Dad loved him. It really is like "saddling up" again each time a tour like this is engaged. I know I've been touring for 40-some years but it always requires the same focus, attention, nerves and just hard work.
Q: You've introduced several new songs I've read about, including "Today Today Today" and another (others?). What do they share in common, in terms of sound, lyrics, message, etc., other than, as you say, "the new ones sound like the old ones"?
J.T.: Yes, we're doing some of the material from my new record which I hope will be released later this year.
My wife (Kim) gets mad when I say that the new songs sound like the old so I try not to use that tired line.Of course I hope they offer something in the way what paths we choose, what life gives us in terms of throwing us curves as well as gifts.
Q: I believe you've said in the past that songwriting is more difficult when one is happy. Have you found that to be the case while crafting new songs for the album and the tour?
J.T.: I think this is somewhat true. Perhaps not the being happy part, but more the distractions and commitments that come with a full life. Our life here in the Berkshires is so full and we feel such a part of a real community here. And our boys have a very busy life independent from us now in terms of sports and other school activities. We also try and make time to do a certain number of benefits so we can give back.
Q: Also, I recall (hopefully, accurately) that your new songs are about mid-life love and happiness? Can you elaborate on that?
J.T.: I think you're referring to the song "You and I Again," which is in the second set.Yes, I have to say that it's an unabashed love song about Kim and the fact it took us well into adulthood to find each other. It's also the first song I've ever written on piano. Larry Goldings helped develop the keyboard part and Michael Landau plays a beautiful acoustic guitar on it.
Q: I understand Henry [James' son] has joined Kim on backup on some stops. How has that family-shared experience been for you, Kim and Henry?
J.T.: Kim brought the boys out on tour as soon as they were out of school and they joined us in LA.Henry has been studying guitar and voice with a wonderful musician who teaches at BCD (Berkshire Country Day School) named Jon Suters. He's been playing acoustic and learning some classical guitar as well.
So it was really a natural thing for him to be interested in joining us on stage. He knows most of the songs and my wonderful singers -- Arnold McCuller, David Lasley, Kate Markowitz and Andrea Zonn -- took him under their wing and taught him a lot.
Kim is a natural singer. However, she broke her ankle while out for a run in Chicago. So Henry has been going it alone while Mom is recovering!
Rufus [James' son] does not enjoy the experience of singing with the band. He's adamant about cheering everyone on as an audience member.
Q: Can you share any details at this point on the anticipated release of the album? Is there a title? Will it be a download and/or CD? Is it self-released or on a label?
J.T.: It will be a CD and it will be released on a major label but not quite ready to announce it yet.
Q: At a youthful 66, are there any aspects of touring and concertizing that are more challenging than in the past?
J.T.: In some ways, I feel in better shape than I've ever been. This year I've had to keep my voice in top shape for the recording and I've made sure to do a long vocal-warmup every day. Now that the tour has started, I can back off this a little since I'm using my voice for close to three hours a night.The hardest aspect of all of this is having to travel so much and be away from home. That gets harder and harder.
Q: I see from reading reviews that the "commenters" from the audience have been doing their call-outs, perhaps more and more. You always seem to have a quick comeback line. Are you at all bothered by that type of audience feedback?
J.T.: When Kim first started coming to shows, she was quite appalled by this. Of course coming from a classical music background, it would not be appropriate for audience members to be shouting comments between movements of Mahler's 5th!
But I love reaction from my audience. I feel very blessed to have such a loyal but also considerate and wonderful group of fans. I like to know people are out there reacting to songs or shouting requests. It makes for a much better show when there's feedback like that!
Q: At Tanglewood, which you've described as your favorite place to perform, without giving away too much, anything you can share about what the audience can look forward to, in terms of the set-mix, new songs, favorites, and other elements you might care to mention?
J.T.: Performing at Tanglewood has always been a highlight. Looking out from the stage to that natural canopy of trees and the expanse of lawn -- it's heaven. Now that I've really made my life here, it's a great luxury and thrill to be able to perform in one's backyard. Of course it's also a little extra pressure to perform in one's own hometown -- because you have to face everyone afterwards!I hope our Tanglewood audience will like this show. There are some new songs and yes, plenty of familiar old ones too. It really features this extraordinary band I'm so lucky to have.
I hope people who don't have tickets will still be able to get onto the lawn! I think that Lenox and Stockbridge are wonderful to stay flexible for these concerts. I feel a lot of support from everyone at Tanglewood. I only hope that as an institution, it doesn't feel it needs to become more bureaucratic and less open and relaxed. It's a unique and beautiful place, our Tanglewood!