In 1970, James Taylor gained widespread recognition with his No. 3 hit single, “Fire and Rain. Then in 1971, his recording of “You’ve Got A Friend,” which was written by Carole King, topped the charts at No. 1. Since then, Taylor, or “JT,” has sold more than 100 million records worldwide. In 2000 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame that same year, the North Carolina Hall of Fame in 2009, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and Kennedy Center Honors in 2016.
In the early years, Taylor toured mostly solo, playing a guitar and singing what could arguably be termed “folk songs.” He was a traveling minstrel. A troubadour. As time passed and popularity ensued, he began to add additional instrumentation into his live sets and studio work.
I have always been partial to the songs about North Carolina – which makes sense as that is where I live. In addition to songs about the Tarheel State, he has created a wide body of work that has stood the test of time. However, he has also personally seen good times and bad. He has had failed marriages, most notably to Carly Simon. Like many of his generation, he battled drug and alcohol addiction.
In about 2004, Taylor decided it would be a good idea to return to his traveling minstrel roots and release an album with only him on a guitar and little to no accompaniment. That is, of course, how he began his career.
After a three-year tour of the same name, “One Man Band” was originally released in 2007 and was the culmination of a three-night performance at the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, MA. Basically, Taylor played a solo guitar and was occasionally accompanied by Larry Goldings on keyboards. Taylor even fashioned his own design of a drum machine used on several tracks.
The subject of this review, the 2019 re-issue of “One Man Band” by Craft Recordings, was mastered by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound and pressed on 180 gram vinyl by RTI. Once the needle dropped, I heard something certain to please any vinyl proponent – nothing. I heard dead silence. As for the songs themselves, the recording is rich, and the vocals are very clean and clear. In fact, Taylor’s voice sounds like he is in his 20’s, not nearly 60 when the original recording was made and certainly not his current age of 71. I also noticed the imaging was presented squarely in the center, directly in front of me, just as it should be if I were listening to one person playing a guitar. Yet the applause was imaged from the left side wall all the way to the right. I also noticed the record was almost perfectly flat even without the use of the outer periphery ring on my VPI turntable. As far as the re-master effort by Craft Recordings is concerned, and the pressing by RTI, my assessment on the manufacturer of this re-issue is nothing but positive. I feel like Craft hit this one out of the park.
As far as included tracks, listeners get a bit of variety. Obviously, some, but not all of his greater hits were included. “You’ve Got A Friend,” “Carolina In My Mind,” “Fire And Rain,” “Sweet Baby James,” “Copperline” and “Shower The People,” yep, they are all included. Other, perhaps lesser known tracks are also included. Such tracks include “The Frozen Man” and “School Song.” All totaled, there are nineteen tracks sure to captivate any James Taylor fan for almost ninety minutes of music.
While the point of this exercise was for Taylor to perform as the title suggests, he is nonetheless backed up by Larry Goldings who is a very accomplished keyboardist. Goldings has the ability to play the upper registers with one hand and play bass accompaniment with the other on a completely different keyboard. I never found having Goldings as a back up as obtrusive or a detriment to the original point of the album. On two tracks, Taylor is backed up by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus who performs regularly with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Again, the chorus is an excellent accompaniment and does not get in the way of what Taylor is doing with an acoustic guitar and little else.
Interspersed throughout the recording Taylor adds off the cuff remarks about the meaning of a song or finds creative ways to introduce the next song. For instance, on “Frozen Man,” Taylor says the following: “There’s a picture of the Frozen Man which just goes to show you that even if you died before the invention of photography you’re still not safe. God have mercy on the Frozen Man.” I find this an interesting departure from simply saying “The Frozen Man” and start playing music. In other instances, he gives the listener a brief background about what they just heard, or about to hear. As one might expect, Taylor is soft spoken yet engaging with the audience.
Taylor has often said that live performances are traditionally about being well prepared then waiting for the inevitable to happen. I cannot say with certainty if the inevitable ever happened over the three nights of this concert series and the source of the material for this album. What I can say is I thoroughly enjoyed hearing some of James Taylor’s favorites of mine, some of his more well known hits and several songs I had not really heard before. All of these songs were done in a small, intimate setting and even listening to the recording I got the feeling like I was part of the crowd.
I have to believe Taylor accomplished what he set out to do, return to his minstrel roots. The reissue of “One Man Band” is an excellent recreation of the original and one sure to please any James Taylor fan. My only wish is that I had been in the audience when this was originally recorded. Short of that, listening to the reissue takes me as close as possible to actually being there.