James Taylor finally tours Canada
TORONTO – James Taylor has never visited Saskatchewan, but – as improbable as it seems – the musician who immortalized his personal struggles with “Fire and Rain” has actually sung about the prairie province that gave birth to Canadian medicare.
That said, residents of Saskatoon or the other stops on Taylor’s pending and first cross-Canada tour shouldn’t expect to hear him break into the lyrics of the song in question, “Northern Boy,” from Randy Newman’s rock musical “Faust.” (The musical, staged briefly in 1995, is captured on a CD released the same year.)
The picture painted by “Northern Boy” isn’t what you’d call flattering. To be fair to Taylor, who played God in the production, his part of the cuttingly witty duet extols Canadians as “clean of limb, clear of eye.” It is Newman’s Devil who dismisses us as a nation of people “as dull as a butter knife.”
Still, as Taylor readies to take his Band of Legends tour to places, like Ottawa, that are named in the song, he’d like to make it clear the song’s views are not his own.
“You know, Randy Newman, he’s a great writer. And when he decides to make fun of you, if you’re a short person or if you’re Mr. Sheep or “Northern Boy”, he can really….” Taylor’s sentence trails off as he looks for a gallant way to finish the thought.
“I think what I’m trying to say is, those aren’t necessarily my thoughts on Saskatchewan.”
In fact, the musical veteran describes himself as fired up about getting a chance to play places, like Saskatoon, or see sights, like the Canadian Rockies, that are new to him. He’s even game to try Canadian cuisine, though it’s clear one famous offering – poutine – has until now evaded his culinary radar.
“Putin like the (Russian) president?” he queries when asked if he plans to try poutine while in Canada. When told the cholesterol-laden ingredients – French fries and cheese curds topped with gravy – he bravely offers to go where no cardiologist would follow.
“If somebody puts a plate of poutine in front of me, I’ll definitely eat it. I’ll give it a try. I’ll embark on it,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home base in the Berkshires region of western Massachusetts.
The quintessential travelling troubadour, Taylor has been a fixture on the summer touring circuit in the United States for decades. He routinely packs the open-air venues he favours with adoring fans who – as he put it in his song “That’s Why I’m Here” – come back every year with their babies and their blankets and their buckets of beer.
Occasionally those tours spill into Canada for a date or two. Generally Toronto. Sometimes Montreal. Once in a blue moon Vancouver. But Taylor has never actually crossed the country.
The oversight, he insists, was omission, not commission. His tour schedules coalesce around offers to play that come in, he explains. And in the past, his schedulers haven’t seemed to look north of the 49th parallel for gigs.
But Taylor – who hasn’t been on a record label for several years and currently manages himself with help from others – is now using Sam Feldman, of the Vancouver-based management company MacKlam-Feldman, as a consultant.
Feldman, is “very knowledgeable about the Canadian audience and venues and stuff and just is the right person to ask to put that kind of thing together. So I’m finally getting good advice on it.”
“I really am looking forward to coming to Canada and really playing the whole country,” Taylor says.
“True, we won’t be in the Atlantic, Maritime provinces, but we’ll definitely see a much larger amount of Canada than I’ve ever toured before. And I’m really stoked about it.”
Another reason for Taylor’s enthusiasm is the fact that his wife, Kim, and their seven-year-old twins Henry and Rufus will be exploring Canada with him and his band.
The Canadian leg starts in Montreal on Sunday and takes in Ottawa (July 7), Toronto (July 8), Saskatoon (July 11), Edmonton (July 12), Calgary (July 13), Kelowna, B.C. (July 16), Vancouver (July 18) and Victoria (July 19).
It is bracketed by weeks of U.S. dates, during which Taylor and his 11-member band have been playing a set list heavy with cover songs that may or may not make the cut for a CD he will release through Starbucks Hear Music label in late September.
He gathered the veteran musicians – long-time partners like backing vocalist Arnold McCuller and bassist Jimmy Johnson plus newer collaborators like pianist Larry Goldings and drummer Steve Gadd – for a heady 10-day recording extravaganza in late January. They recorded 20 tracks in a studio built in a converted barn on Taylor’s property.
“This band is really a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a very rare thing to have this kind of group of players get together,” Taylor enthuses. “These players really are the best.”
As he makes time to be interviewed, he’s trying to finalize the set list for the CD, whittling down the songs to a dozen. More than that and a collection can lose its sense of identity, says Taylor, who is co-producing the CD.
“Originally it was going to be just sort of a good time party sort of soul song album. But I’m going to just try to choose the things I like the best. The 12 best songs and put them out. But it’s hard to decide.”
The U.S. audiences have been getting a preview of the possibilities – hearing songs like “Wichita Lineman” and “In the Midnight Hour.”
But Taylor says the set lists for the Canadian concerts will focus more on James Taylor classics, songs like “Sweet Baby James,” “Fire and Rain” and “Handyman” (itself a cover, but one for which Taylor won a Grammy in 1977).
“These are audiences that I won’t have had the chance to play for and I ought to play James Taylor music, not cover tunes,” he explains.
Taylor is also working on the songs for a new collection of his own material, which will be his first studio release since “October Road” in 2002. He’s also planning an instructional DVD on his unique guitar style.
Taylor, who turned 60 this year, keeps up a pace unusual among his contemporaries. Many – Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne – make less frequent forays into the musical marketplace. But Taylor, who is clearly revelling in his work, has a sense that time is passing.
“I’m loving working now,” he admits. “But you get to this point, you get to being 60 and it’s not like open-ended really anymore.”
“It’s sort of like: What do you really want to do? What do you want to make sure to do? And let’s put it on the calendar and let’s get there and do it. Let’s get it done.”
Some facts about singer James Taylor, whose first cross-Canada tour starts Sunday in Montreal:
Original claim to fame: Lanky, long-haired embodiment of the singer-songwriter movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Featured on the cover of Time magazine in March 1971.
Current claim to fame: Hardworking singer-songwriter who maintains an ambitious touring schedule, regularly selling out shows.
Hits: “Sweet Baby James,” “Fire and Rain,” “You’ve Got a Friend” (penned by Carole King), “Shower the People,” “Mexico.”
Albums: 22, including 15 CDs of original material, a Christmas album, live albums and “greatest hits” collections.
His song-writing process: “I don’t control what I write…. What comes out as a song is a mystery and a gift. I don’t turn any of it down. If it’s good enough to finish, if it’s good enough to actually follow through to its end, then it’s good enough to exist.”
James Taylor finally tours Canada