First I saw James Taylor at the NIA in Birmingham on Sunday 5 July with two colleagues – escaping from three days of IB training at the NEC, and secondly I saw Leonard Cohen at Brooklands Mercedes Benz World in Weybridge on Saturday 11 July with a friend.
After we had booked the concert for James Taylor I checked him out on youtube – just to get a sense of the man again. I watched him in his twenties clearly uncomfortable and uneasy in front of the camera. His long 1970’s hair was a kind of shield hiding him. But the simple guitar man played beautifully.
And so fast forward 30 years or so to a rainy July evening in Birmingham and the NIA.
It seemed that everything needed was here to make a good evening, a great band, a good singer songwriter with a solid American folk pedigree.
But the evening fell flat as the songs unfolded. I think this was due to a number of problems. Firstly the location, the NIA is a vast soulless place. It was built as a sports arena, I think and it lacked atmosphere and warmth. Secondly the set was a soup of unnecessary colour and light. There were at least four things going on behind the band at any one time.
We thought he was trying to satisfy the needs of the half a dozen audiences he was trying to attract – the traditional folkies, a country audience, a young audience – the children and grandchildren of those first hippy listeners, the oldies – the grown up hippies themselves and those easy listeners who had stumbled across his latest CD.
I’m easily pleased really. I’m a simple consumer.
But the final nail in the coffin of the evening was James Taylor himself. His script that bridged the different songs was slick and polished enough. The one liners were delivered in a quiet unassuming voice. But he lacked raw exciting energy, strutting uncomfortably across the stage. At times he looked like a parody of an aging rock star from the sixties. He was a man going through his well worn performance. He could have done the concert blindfolded - a rock concert by numbers. At times I thought he was boring himself.
Leonard Cohen was different. I spotted an advert for the concert in a discarded Metro on a train back from London. Walking home I popped in to see my friend – a Leonard Cohen fan since the 1960’s. We despaired at the ticket prices; we reassured ourselves that they had sold out. We parted resigned to the fact we wouldn’t be seeing him.
But there we were on Saturday night. Two middle aged men queuing up to watch a 74 year old man hold an audience in the palm of his hands. And he did it for over two hours, with a sublime ease, as if he had been born for the part.
I knew we’d made the right decision to come as the first notes reached us. For Cohen had brought together musicians that produce a rich, tight and accomplished sound. I love the way he has fused beautifully electric and acoustic instruments.
I felt at home here with people that swapped seats with us so that I could sit next to the aisle – more leg room. At home with people that talked easily about the last time they’d been to a Cohen concert, then mentioned Nick Cave and The Boatman’s Call.
And he played everything on our wish list. I wanted to hear The Partisan - it was the absolute highlight of the concert for me – Boogie Street – where Sharon Robinson, Cohen’s co writer, sang a solo and Famous Blue Raincoat – a stunning performance. Of course he did Halleluiah but he must be pretty pissed off with that song by now.
A week earlier we had sat in the soulless National Indoor Arena, sheltering from a rainy July evening, watching an accomplished James Taylor go through his paces. But unlike that concert a week later we were outside under a grey sky that eventually rained down on us. We were captivated, totally enchanted – lost in the labyrinth of his songs and the gracious spell that Leonard Cohen cast.