Preview: James Taylor talks new tour, Taylor Swift, early touring days


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Trivia question: Who played the final event at the Civic Arena?

OK, that's going to be a much more interesting question a few decades from now, so keep that on file. Two years out, most people likely remember that it was James Taylor and Carole King on the highly successful Troubadour Tour in June 2010.

"It's strange to outlive a building," says Mr. Taylor, who returns Wednesday for a concert at the Petersen Events Center.

James Taylor

Where: Petersen Events Center, Oakland.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Tickets: $61.50-$81.50; 1-800-745-3000.

"I remember discussions about whether to open the roof on the place," he says of the old days there. "That was always the big treat if at intermission the weather had improved to where they could open the roof. That would always be a thrill."

The golden-voiced folk-rocker from Boston had a history in the building, having opened for Chicago there in the summer of 1970 after releasing his classic second album, "Sweet Baby James," and returning just a year later as a headliner when he had his first No. 1 hit with "You've Got a Friend."

For a mellow, acoustic musician, who cut his teeth at clubs like the Troubadour, he was making lightning-fast transitions in the size of venues.

"I remember the first time I played a theater. In Princeton, N.J., and I opened for Laura Nyro and that was a thrill, and then I think the first large place I ever played, I opened for The Who. Just had a guitar and a chair, so it was kind of a crazy opening act. Then within a year, I was playing as a headliner. We built slowly, starting with a guitar and a plane ticket, and when I could afford it, I built up a band and started to evolve a style of playing to these large places."

Mr. Taylor, who stands 6 feet, 3 inches tall with a towering but gentle presence, has always had a talent for making these big halls seem smaller.

"When you're playing to 10,000 or more in places that are meant for basketball games, or tractor pulls or, whatever, rodeos, it's kind of a challenge to figure out how to play this kind of music, which, by and large, is best suited to playing in a theater. But there's a certain energy to blowing it up, enlarging it to reach further and further. This challenge for me is to make something so big be intimate."

The Troubadour Reunion tour -- which cut the venue in half by putting the stars in the round -- ended as one of the top 10 grossing tours of 2010, amounting to sales of more than 700,000 tickets and $59 million. He has no intentions of trying to compete with himself on this tour, which is more of a quick summer fling.

"I agreed to play Tanglewood, here in Western Mass., where I live," he says. "It's a yearly gig every Fourth of July week. We've played every Fourth of July for the past 10 years, I think. Once we had accepted that job, it became clear that in order to get the band together and make it worth everybody's while to commit for the summer, we needed to expand it to more places. There's not an album release associated with it, it's not a reunion tour, it's just James Taylor trying to connect with his audience."

Mr. Taylor's previous studio effort was 2008's "Covers," in which he took on such classics as "Hound Dog," "Wichita Lineman" and "Summertime Blues." His last album of original material goes all the way back to 2002's warm, familiar "October Road."

He says, "2013, I'm going to devote to finish writing and recording a new batch of songs that I've done. That and guitar lessons online are my main project right now."

No, Mr. Taylor isn't taking guitar lessons online. He's posting a series of videos on his website instructing fans how to play like him.

"People have been teaching my songs and picking style and my particular technique of accompanying myself and writing my songs. They've been teaching that for a long time as a staple of guitar teachers. And I thought it would be good to do it myself. Just a feeling that it's something that I would like to do on permanent record and make it available to people. I go back and forth between little study pieces that focus on a certain aspect of a technique, and after that we put on a couple of my songs and I show how they are played."

It's one way that a 64-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame musician can reach out to a younger generation. Another, much more direct way, is jumping on stage with another Taylor -- Taylor Swift. He did that in November at Madison Square Garden for the finale of her Speak Now tour (and now has added her as a guest on the Tanglewood show). They had met during a benefit for The Candie's Foundation, a New York nonprofit that educates to prevent teenage pregnancy.

"She and I worked together, and we just hit it off," he says. "I loved her songs, and her presence on stage was so great. She told me that her mom had me in mind when she named her Taylor. When she called and asked if I would join her at the end of the last tour to celebrate the end of a successful tour on her part, I jumped in."

They did the Swift song "Fifteen," as well as his classic "Fire and Rain," a song he had written in 1968 while struggling with depression and the suicide of a friend. All these years later, what is it like for him to perform that song, and others that were so personal and meaningful to him?

"I'm focused on all that it takes to do the song right," he says. "I'm fully occupied by what I'm doing when I'm performing. Under the right circumstances, as often as not, it takes me back to where I was and feelings that I had at that time, but it's possible to separate my own response to it from my own feelings and what I'm getting back from the audience.

"There's something that happens in a live concert," he adds. "Sometimes it's celebratory, it's just a party vibe, and sort of an abandonment, and sometimes it feels like church, it feels spiritual. I get something when I play those songs -- like 'Carolina in My Mind,' 'Sweet Baby James,' 'Fire and Rain,' 'You've Got a Friend,' songs that are in high rotation. When you do them with an audience, there's an energy there, and the vibe of the audience receiving it is indescribable. It's one thing to get people out of their seats because you're slamming them with 135 decibels of drums and throbbing bass. It's another thing to sweep people up in something more subtle, more sort of in-common and introspective at the same time. That's where the energy for that comes from."

music

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg. First Published June 17, 2012 4:00 AM


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