Is James Taylor the coolest uncool guy ever? On the scene at Carnegie Hall's 120th anniversary with Taylor, Sting, Bette Midler, Bill Clinton(!) and more


Image Credit: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Last night, those fortunate to be on the New York fundraiser circuit (or fledgling EW reporters) were treated to an intimate concert at Carnegie Hall headlined by none other than the king of soft folk-rock himself, James Taylor.

Taylor was there to help the famous venue, founded in 1891 and celebrating 120 years of being NYC’s premier concert hall by welcoming back some of its most famous performers. The roster included Bette Midler, (Carnegie debut, 1972) Steve Martin, (1971) Barbara Cook, (1961) Dianne Reeves, (1989) and Sting (1991).

While the gala crowds at the Carnegie last night probably wouldn’t be defined as musical trailblazers, they did love them some James Taylor. By the time the musician strode out at about a quarter past 7 p.m., the house was packed. I didn’t check the rafters to see if people were hanging from them, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if some ball-gowned “Country Road” enthusiasts had sneaked their way past security.

Though Carnegie Hall is one of the most prestigious venues in the city, the stage set was simply understated, with a piano on the left and a drum set on the right, (a trumpeter here, a violinist there). Upon arrival, Taylor, in a tailored suit and an electric-blue tie, grabbed his guitar and cut straight into a stripped-down version of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” If that man’s voice can’t make baby seals cry, I don’t know what could.

In addition to performing some of his greatest hits—“Sweet Baby James,” “Carolina in My Mind,” “How Sweet It Is”—Taylor served as the night’s MC, taking the audience on a verbal tour of Carnegie’s musical evolution; it was like story time with Uncle James.

Among the genres represented, the performers highlighted folk, jazz, Broadway, comedy and pop. First up was a disarmingly fabulous-looking Midler, who belted out Creamer and Layton’s “After You’ve Gone” and in true theatrical manner, Rosenblatt’s “My Yiddishe Mama.”

Coming from someone who hasn’t dusted off her Midler records in quite some time, let me tell you, the broad sounds great. Though it must be noted that the integrity of her bedazzled little black dress was questioned when Broadway legend Barbara Cook appeared in a floor-length gold-splattered coat minutes later.

After a shout-out to singer/social activist/audience member Harry Belafonte, (Carnegie Hall alum, class of ’59 and ’60), MC Uncle James introduced “banjo playin’ fool” Steve Martin. Martin (in a classy brown suit) and James continued on to play the most intriguing banjo performance since Deliverance stopped cycling on AMC.

As the show progressed, Midler and Martin came out on numerous occasions to assist with the timeline, but it was jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves, with a powerful rendition of Billie Holiday’s classic “Don’t Explain,” who received the first standing O of the night. And from one end of the performance spectrum to the other, comedian Kevin Pollack gave an equaling entertaining (but, you know, in a different way) impression of an excerpt from Lenny Bruce’s 1961 Carnegie Midnight Concert. It was better than his Christopher Walken, I’ll tell you that much.

For this reporter, the highlight of the night, aside from Uncle James lovingly supervising the performers from his perch by the drum set, was undoubtedly the British Invasion. By that, I mean a skinny jean-clad Sting, who came out and sang a swoon-worthy, Sting-ified version of The Beatles’ “Penny Lane.”

But WAIT—who’s that? Former President Bill Clinton?

“You’re probably wondering why I’m here,” he said.


He made a quip about representing all the artists who always wanted to come to Carnegie Hall but were never quite good enough—then launched into a speech about the importance of culture and music to growing children. Oh, Bill, why must you taunt us? We know you can play!!

After a surround-sound (courtesy of the Young People’s Chorus of New York) rendering of “Shower The People,” Taylor ended the show with the anthem that he associates most with Carnegie Hall, Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” And thus, the sun set on Uncle James’ Carnegie evening.

Now, I’m not positive when it happened, but somewhere between the ‘70s, when my Dad was in college and allegedly broke all of his friend’s “wussy” Taylor records while definitely not drunk, and 2009, when Taylor made a deliberately crude cameo as himself in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, it became cool for the younger set to like James Taylor again. I, for one, am positive I’m not the only one of the under 40-set who’s eyes prickle at the sound of “Fire and Rain.” And I own it.

Were you there, readers? Do you agree?

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix)

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Comments (18 total) Add your comment
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  • briguyx

    Let’s face it… the “younger set” have no idea who James Taylor is, and it’s their loss. His voice hasn’t lost a thing and he’s only become a better singer over the years.

  • Lauren

    I’m a 24 yr old girl who discovered JT in college via (illegal) downloads. I used to play his greatest hits album every drive home for christmas. I definitely love me some James! Seeing him live is on my bucket list.

    Now the first of December was covered with snow
    And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
    Though the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting
    With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go

  • Norm Worth

    Was at the concert. Steve Martin stole the show, with both banjo and wit. Sting doing Penny Lane was a real kick. But JT’s vocals were about as pure as sound gets.

    • CatBuff

      So lucky to have been at the concert. Wow,JT is awesome, as awesome as ever. Between Bette, Sting, Steve and JT – well, I’m still there in my head,with Carnegie Hall on my mind.
      And Bill???? Wow.

  • Courtney

    I’m only 19, and I’ve grown up listening to JT!! I’ve seen him in concert, and “Your Smiling Face” continues to be one fo my all-time favorite songs. Glad we’re on the same page Maggie!

  • Paul

    “Coming from someone who hasn’t dusted off her Midler records in quite some time, let me tell you, the broad sounds great.” — Well, then, dust them off! I recently listened to Bette’s 1972 debut album The Divine Miss M and there were songs that gave me goose bumps! She is something else and should be remembered as a wonderful intrepreter of song. Take a listen to her haunting rendition of The Carpenters, “Superstar” for proof.

  • DanOregon

    Was listening to my James Taylor Live CD the other day in the car and remembered a comment from my senior all-nighter back in the day when a guy was playing some JT – “James Taylor – bridges the generation gap.”

  • Susan

    If you’re born and raised in NC like me, JT has always been cool and loved by fans of all ages. I’m 33 and grew up listening to James, and his voice has the power to soothe like no other.

  • ps in seattle

    My husband and I had tickets to see JT in Sept 2001, only a couple of days after the terrorist attacks. We debated whether it was appropriate to go to the concert while the country grieved; it felt so selfish. In the end we did go, at first with very heavy hearts. But as JT spoke to us and shared his music we felt very comforted, and a warm sense of community washed over everyone. JT was as comfortable and familiar as a favorite old sweater. It was a very emotional evening for everyone present, and JT lightened our hearts for a short time. We felt that he helped set us all on the road to healing.

  • Marissa

    I’m 31 years old and I’ve loved JT for as long as I can remember. Whenever someone asks who my favorite artist is, I don’t even hesitate to say James Taylor. I’ve also become a big fan of his son Ben, who sounds a lot like his dad.

  • Sue1

    The answer to the question “Is James Taylor the coolest uncool guy ever?” is No, because James Taylor never was uncool to the ‘younger set’, just unknown. If they’re lucky, that will change.

  • Greta Moore (S.A.)

    A legend!!!

  • sean

    I’m hoping this was recorded so we can all see

  • Jamie

    James Taylor has always been cool.When I was growing up JT, CSN&Y Joni Mitchell were all considered cool. Now–maybe my friends who loved real hard rock weren’t crazy for him–but he wasn’t considered uncool.
    James Taylor is an amazing talent. That voice–nothing like it. Not to mention that he is a freakin great acoustic guitarist and is a composer and lyricist. He doesn’t need 27 co-writers to make one lousy song like these days. And–he don’t need no auto-tune. He is the best in his genre–no doubt about it!

  • jim brennan

    I caught the show. The kid next to me was 25. His late 40’s mom introduced him to JT when he was a kid. At the end of the show he told us he didn’t mind admitting tears came to his eyes only three times during JT’s performances. He’s the best!

  • Eka

    Saw him at the Gaslight in ’70 and then his Carnegie Hall debut and then… Man, the guy can still make me cry. Nobody else like him. I’m so glad his fan base now includes the next generation.

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