Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Live Pittsburgh 1976 | Lefsetz Letter

Live Pittsburgh 1976

Live shows used to be rare, to the point where it was a staple of a band’s career to release a double live album of their greatest hits, even though it did not count against their label quota as per the contract.

And there was the King Biscuit Flower Hour. If it was gonna be a simulcast in your neighborhood, you listened. I still remember hearing a live radio tape of the Stones at the Slope bar in Aspen in February 1970, that’s how few and far between these recordings were.

And then the internet came along and everything flipped. Live is something you do on YouTube, to satiate your existing fanbase, and hopefully grow it with newbies.

Now in the nineties, those King Biscuit shows came out on CD, but it was too late, the mania was gone. Acts used to be uptight about imperfect performances, they wanted to hold back material, the exact opposite of today, even though we had to fight about it for the last twenty years.

And at the advent of Napster it was astounding what surfaced, live shows you never knew existed, live shows you were at. But most of that material has disappeared with legal streaming services. But on these services you oftentimes find live albums you didn’t even know existed, like James Taylor’s “Live Pittsburgh 1976.”

I saw James at the Universal Amphitheatre back then. It was 1975, just after “Gorilla” brought him back to the top of the charts. Crosby & Nash sang harmonies, Carly Simon came out for “Mockingbird.”

If you missed a tour, you missed material. Sure, the hits remained in the show, but if you were a fan of the act, you had to buy the album and see the act every year. You were bonded. It’s very different from the nostalgia of today, where the acts and their audience try to jet their minds back to the past.

Then again, we thought we’d never get old.

And so many who are old now view music as safe that they used to find dangerous, or were too unhip to know about.

So, last night scrounging around on Amazon Music on Sonos I came across a James Taylor live album I never knew existed, and this caught me off guard, since I’ve got a live album never released in the U.S. and…

“Live Pittsburgh 1976” was only released two years ago, if there was any hype I missed it, I can’t find any reviews online, it’s like it was a stealth release.

1975 was “Gorilla.”

1976 was “In the Pocket.” This show is hype for that album, which was not seen as good as “Gorilla,” it was not as sunny, but contains one of my favorite JT songs, “Captain Jim’s Drunken Dream,” and the exquisite “Nothing Like a Hundred Miles,” but the only track that has stood the test of time, that the hoi polloi know, is “Shower the People.”

So this Pittsburgh show, performed at the Syria Mosque on July 25th, was a live FM radio show. So, you’d expect imperfections, but you don’t find them. This was back when acts needed no help to perform.

And the opening cut is “Lighthouse,” my absolute favorite from “Gorilla,” a song that’s long left James’s set list. Well, it’s a recurrent, according to it got played 23 times in 2012. 20 in 2005. And then it goes down from there. 6 in 1986. And…my point is if you go to a James Taylor show today, your odds of hearing “Lighthouse” are low, odds are you’ve never even heard “Lighthouse” live, and it was not on that 1993 double live album so…this is probably your only chance to hear a live version.

And I quote “Lighthouse” all the time.

But just because I might be standing here
That don’t mean I won’t be wrong this time
You could follow me and lose your mind

When someone hangs on every word, believes everything I have to say, I leaven their expectations by quoting these lines.

Next comes “Riding on a Railroad,” which I mentioned last night, and is not rare, but is always good to hear.

The third cut is a complete surprise, “Secret of Life.” Billed as “Secret O’ Life” on the album “JT”…the recorded version didn’t come out until the following year!

The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time

And that applies in sequestration as much as the old days, where we could go where we wanted to, do what we wanted to do, with whomever we wanted to do it with.

And then comes “Shower the People.” This iteration is not my favorite, it’s slowed down from the take that opens “In the Pocket,” and I’m not in love with the backup vocals, but I am in love with the lyrics, which eluded me until long after this song was a hit. They’re all genius, but I’ll just quote a few, in this era where everybody’s a winner, when everybody’s afraid of revealing themselves. Oh, there are people making careers of oversharing, especially online, but most people are too uptight to tell their truth, but when they do…

Once you tell somebody the way that you feel
You can feel it beginning to ease
I think it’s true what they say about the squeaky wheel
Always getting the grease

One of the reasons I no longer talk on the phone is it’s all salesmanship, the people are not real, but when they are, tell me their inner thoughts and demons, then I feel it was all worth it, then I really know them.

Next comes “Mexico.” In its original breezy arrangement. Today’s radio, which oldsters do listen to, only plays a few hits by each act, so “Mexico” is rare.

Then “Anywhere Like Heaven.” This was the last song I got into on “Sweet Baby James.” Seen as a minor track, it’s anything but. And this is another cut rarely played live. It got 11 performances in 2012, but you have to go back to 1986 to find another live performance.

And then a surprise, “Walking Man.”

James had jettisoned Peter Asher, he was looking to change it up. Eventually he worked with Russ and Lenny on the aforementioned “Gorilla” and “In the Pocket,” but before that he did an LP with David Spinozza and his New York cats. “One Man Dog” hadn’t met expectations, “Walking Man” did worse. The sound is not right, it’s muted. But there are a few great tracks, “Rock ‘n’ Roll is Music Now,” with Paul McCartney on background vocals, and “Me and My Guitar,” and my favorite, “Migration,” but the only song most people know from this LP is the title cut. And it’s amazing how many people know it, not because it was a radio hit, but because despite not garnering the sales of the previous LPs, fans bought “Walking Man,” and know it.

“Family Man” was from “In The Pocket,” and it was played live a couple of times in 2006, but you have to go back to 1987 before that.

And James cannot do a show without “Fire and Rain” and “Carolina In My Mind,” so they’re both here.

Following those two, you’ve got “Bartender’s Blues,” which like “Secret of Life” didn’t appear on wax until the following year.

And then comes my favorite track in the collection, why I’m writing this at all.

The second side of “One Man Dog” was a suite, like the second side of “Abbey Road,” the only thing that pisses me off is that James did not do “Mescalito,” which precedes “Dance” on “One Man Dog.” “Dance” sounds like a barn dance, like it’s Saturday night and you’re having a good time and the rest of the world doesn’t matter, only the music and the people you’re with, the live iteration encapsulates this same vibe. If you were a fan of “One Man Dog” you’ll be thrilled to hear this!

This is a good rendition of “Everybody Has the Blues.” More intimate than the version on “In the Pocket,” but honestly, it was never one of my favorite songs, but if I listened to this take enough I might change my mind.

And then we come to the second side killer from “Gorilla.” “I Was a Fool to Care” is genius in every way, with all that love now behind you, check out the lyrics, and this slowed-down, somewhat naked take is different and nearly equally good.

And another “Walking Man” nugget, “Hello Old Friend,” which is better than the recorded take, sans strings, sans the sonic flattening.

And now we roll to the end of the show.

A heartfelt “Hey Mister, That’s Me up on the Jukebox.” It’ll hit you in your gut more than the original from “Mud Slide Slim,” it sounds world-weary.

And I guess that was the end of the radio show, but there are three additional bonus tracks. The classics “Rainy Day Man,” “Steamroller” and “Carolina In My Mind.” All in good versions.

So what we’ve got here is nearly astounding. We’ve got a live show from almost 44 years ago that sounds like it could be cut today, but it wasn’t. It’s honest, sans the studio trickery that eliminates the life in so many recordings. It contains both classics and songs only a fan knows by heart. But do you need to hear it?

We’re overwhelmed with material.

But if it’s a slow afternoon, like now, in our days of hibernation, pull this up. Put it on the big speakers if you’ve still got ’em. Sit and listen, or do mindless chores, just live your life like you used to, before you were addicted to your smartphone, when you could disconnect.

And you’ll remember what once was.

And in this case, still is.


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