AN old man singing a young man’s songs can be a disconcerting sight – a reminder that, no matter how high you soar, in the end time will have its sordid way with you. But James Taylor was never youthful exactly: always a little withered before his years, now officially of bus pass vintage he remains the perfect conduit for tunes of quiet despair and grim wonderment.
Through the 1970s, Taylor cultivated a reputation as the depressive’s depressive, with ballads that felt perpetually on the brink of collapsing under the weight of their angst of clean living have conspired to airbrush the material slightly, so that today it may appear to possess a sardonic twinkle. Between tunes the gangly, thoroughly bald performer laughed aloud and was visibly enjoying himself. Or perhaps that was the impression he wished to convey, lest the tides of ennui in the performance proper grow suffocating.
At 66, the North Carolina artist is no withered Methuselah. He’s a full 22 years younger than Tony Bennett, who has recorded with Lady Gaga and, a fortnight previously, reduced the Bord Energy Gais Theatre down the road to gobsmacked awe. Taylor is certainly capable of rock swagger when required – at one point during an alarmingly rambunctious One More Go Round he alighted from his stool and looked on the brink of waggling his crotch in the direction of the front row. It was astonishing and, after half an hour of gently bleak dirges, precisely what the evening required (he apologised for the track’s throaway lyrics - so it was odd that the words were splashed across the jumbotrons either side of the stage).
Along with the showmanship Taylor demonstrated an extraordinary gift for finding sadness where others might see only sunshine and chuckles. In one of several engaging anecdotes he remembered traveling to London to record his debut LP for the Beatles’ record label. Shacked up in Abbey Road studios, he should have been having the time of his life (the Beatles were next door, finishing the White Album). In fact, he was tortured by homesickness, his dejection inspiring the gorgeously keening Carolina In My Mind.
In a similar vein, Taylor recalled the birth in 1969 of a nephew who was to be named for him. His response, he explained, was to pen Sweet Baby James, a lullaby that circled a sinkhole of despair. Backed by a nuanced and soulful band, that song, and many others, seemed to be set in a world where hope has left the building, firmly shutting the door on its way out. But Taylor smiled a lot and it made a difference.