Sweet grown-up James

The kids file quietly into their seats, as though being led to a gruesome, inevitable fate. They are quiet, respectful, the shuffle of their feet the only sound echoing through the majestic concert hall. "Man, I hope this is cool," whispers one bespectacled teenage boy to another. "Dude, it will be," his friend reassures him. At the very least, he says, "My parents love him." It's hard to tell whether he's saying this with any sarcasm, though a little later, a 17-year-old girl who sings in the Garland High School pop choir will express her profound joy at meeting the man who wrote and sang "Shower the People" and "Fire and Rain."

"I saw you on Sesame Street when I was a kid!" the perky blonde girl tells James Taylor. All he can do with such information is laugh. "When you were a kid?" Taylor says, a crooked smile running across his angular face.

About 150 music students from Garland High School -- members of the school's choirs, band, and orchestra -- have been invited to the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center this Monday afternoon to attend a rehearsal hours before the first of Taylor's five local performances. It's their reward for winning one of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences' special Grammy Awards presented to high school music programs. They've been given the opportunity to watch Taylor and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra rehearse, then to ask him some questions about, ya know, his career and stuff. For instance: What's your favorite concert? Or, Do you get stage fright? Or, How did you get started?

This is the second time Taylor has participated in a Q&A session with high school students. According to his tour manager, the singer-songwriter had a "dry run" in Chicago recently, if only to find out whether high school students would get too, well, bored by the whole thing. They didn't.

"For these students," says Eric Fahrlander, Garland High School's band director, "this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's one thing to buy a ticket and go see a concert. It's something else to see a master at work, to see how he puts it together. Here, you can see it at a more personal level. And our kids have well-rounded musical tastes. Some listen to Mahler and Metallica -- though not at the same time."

Today's experience falls, perhaps, somewhere in the middle: Taylor stands on stage, balding and bespectacled, outfitted in a rumpled blue button-down and khakis to match, his every move hesitant and deliberate as he discusses something with a much shorter man who sports a hairdo carved from burning bush. The kids watch him, and some try to figure out what the big deal is. At this moment, from no fewer than 11 rows away, the 51-year-old Taylor looks like a teacher. Or a parent.

Slowly, members of the DSO file onto the stage and begin fumbling with their instruments. The conductor quiets them down as he signals that rehearsal is about to begin. Taylor stands at the front of the stage, his acoustic guitar slung around his neck. When he speaks, his is a nasal voice. And a humble one.

"Welcome to the students contemplating a life in music...or crime," he begins, chuckling softly. "I hope we don't discourage you from that course over the next hour and a half."

Taylor and the orchestra then begin rehearsing a handful of songs they will perform over the next few nights, among them "Millworker," "Frozen Man," "Carolina in My Mind," "You've Got a Friend," and, of course, "Fire and Rain." Though it's only a rehearsal, full of stops and starts and whispered instructions passed between performer and conductor, the performance is rather impressive, quite moving. It offers proof, as though it were needed, that nothing beats a pretty voice propped up against a string section. It's especially true when Taylor lights into delicate renditions of "Our Love is Here to Stay" and "The Way You Look Tonight," ageless standards perfectly suited for a man who makes "easy listening" seem less a pejorative and more a compliment.

But there is no applause after each number: Since this is not an actual concert, the kids have been instructed to remain silent, so Taylor and the orchestra members can critique each performance. It seems odd and a bit awkward, if only because the performances, even half-polished, are worth celebrating: After 30-plus years on a stage -- as would-be rocker in the crash-landed Flying Machine, as an American folkie wandering the streets of Europe, as the Troubadour's troubadour in Los Angeles, then finally as the confessional songwriter's grand old man -- Taylor seems to have found his proper place.

Songs that once sounded so small and intimate, as though they belonged only to him, are born again in the concert hall, writ enormous and breathtaking in such a setting. It's hardly surprising when, during an interview in his dressing room later on, Taylor says he'd like to release an album of his songs dolled up in these arrangements. "It's important to try different things," he says, "because you never know where it's going to lead."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky