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Live: James Taylor in Chapel Hill

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Click for larger image • James Taylor, playing for the converted - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG

JAMES TAYLOR
Monday, Oct. 21
UNC-Chapel Hill's Fetzer Field

Last week, on the way to dinner, a friend and I were discussing the day's news regarding the upcoming presidential election, as most everyone is doing on the way to dinner these days. "What will we talk about when the election is over?" he posed, speaking of a first-person plural much bigger than the two of us, I presumed.

At the time, I believed I laughed it off. I didn't have an answer, or at least I wasn't interested in going fishing for one over dinner. But standing in the enveloping fall cool of UNC-Chapel Hill's Fetzer Field Monday night, watching James Taylor sing songs about dogs that bite and cattlemen in the canyon, I realized that the friend's simple, quasi-rhetorical question was perhaps the most important and compelling political tidbit I've heard in the past six weeks—bigger than the lipstick, bigger than the pig, bigger than the melanoma, bigger than any New Yorker cover, and certainly bigger than Sarah Palin's e-mail accounts or foreign policy experience.

Taylor was in his hometown to stump for Barack Obama and to encourage people to vote early: His five-show swing through the state of his childhood made national headlines, and—given North Carolina's rare swing state opportunity in this election—Taylor's arrival is commendable and welcome. He's won six Grammy awards, landed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, as Congressman David Price noted as he introduced Taylor last night, he's the one that wrote the state's unofficial emotional anthem, "Carolina In My Mind." His endorsement of Obama ranks probably only second in importance to that of UNC basketball genius Dean Smith, at least to the right-of-moderate, ultra-essential middle-class in this state. Let's hope it helps.

But here's the rub: Surely you've met someone who's announced his or her engagement one day, then spent the next year planning for the wedding, not the marriage. The first week is perfect; the next 51 are a steady, cumulative descent into divorce. The wedding is at hand, and James Taylor's five appearances here since Sunday should help lead to good wedding day. But I'm not sure these are the tunes to which we want to plan the marriage, especially since we all know it's going to be a tough one, no matter who wins on Nov. 4.

Indeed, Taylor's music fell far admittedly short in this respect Monday night. Taylor is, as Price put it onstage, "one of North Carolina's favorite sons" because he makes music that's on the passive side of polite society. If there's an emergent genre of music for NPR listeners, this is like their soft jazz—totally fuzzy and pleasant, mostly empty and gentle. After opening his 12-song, 50-minute set with an uninspired acoustic take on "America the Beautiful" and delivering a short political spiel, he admitted he would now play songs that "don't have anything to do with all of that." And, whether covering "Wichita Lineman" or dueting with his wife, that's pretty much what he did, though he did manage to squeeze some Obama plugs into some of his tunes, like Hank Williams Jr. in reverse.

Click for larger image • James Taylor and his wife, Caroline, performing in Chapel Hill at a Barack Obama rally Monday - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG

Between songs, at least, Taylor made several salient points—that we need a leader who can change the negative connotation of government, for instance—but he was ministering to the converted. His talks met much less enthusiasm than "Carolina In My Mind" and "Sweet Baby James," to which most of the surprisingly young crowd sang along in a rather deafening way. That is, those who had already made up their mind wanted to be pacified by songs they knew, not charged to keep working for more. Bless society and all, but, really, what do we like more than a great big ol' coddling? Consider the reversion to folk music by older folks post-9/11, or the hardcore renaissance that's been so vital during the reign Bush II. In times of turmoil, we cling to the most basic elements, to what we know. But we have to look beyond the cool comfort of Taylor's music right now and remember two things: If Barack Obama wins, that's good. But if Barack Obama wins, that's not sufficient. The wedding is important, but there's much work to be done after the honeymoon.

The healthier (and, I think, the more meaningful) attitude for Taylor's songs is to not look at them as little folk-pop trifles but at his career rather as a mass of surprising accomplishment for a 60-year-old that he committed himself to a mental hospital for depression, suffered a prolonged heroin addiction and been an expatriate by the age 25. That is, reductively, we can drop a lot of balls, but—with able leadership or a little talent or an imagination—we can become something for which 6,000 people will sit on cold bleachers for an hour on a Monday, or a nation benevolent to its own and to outsiders.

That is, if we commit to the sort of labor that is rarely comfortable, we can become something better. Hopefully, after Nov. 4 or even before it, that's the kind of stuff we'll be talking about—how to steer a great big mess into something that we can actually like again. Heaven knows, it won't be in steady nostalgia, or—for that matter—down a country road.

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