The night I watched James Taylor with my mother

Arvin Buenaagua

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The night I watched James Taylor with my mother
'My mother was there just stomping her feet and clapping her hands along like it was church. And it easily could have been.'

As Mr. Taylor wrapped up his fourth encore with “You Can Close Your Eyes,” I wondered how much of the night my mother will remember.

My mother suffered a stroke two years ago, and it has been hard for her to retain new memories. The whole ordeal has made life difficult for all of us in the family, as back then she still had one year to go before she could avail of early retirement. And now one year after her retirement, it has not been easy grounding her in the present, as she forgets most things mere seconds after they happen.

Of course, I can’t complain. I’m grateful just for the fact that she is still with us, which means that we still had the privilege of trying to make new memories, hard as it may be. Last April 8, in the Mall of Asia Arena, the memory we were making was the memory of watching Mr. James Taylor perform his decades-spanning catalog of hits live in Manila.

 “I remember Tatay,” she would turn to tell me almost after every song, recalling how her father used to play long-playing James Taylor records in their big old stereo.

After an amazing set by Ice Seguerra and Noel Cabangon, it only took the 76-year-strong man to walk to his chair for the arena to once again burst into applause. The sense of excitement only got stronger when he put on his guitar and spoke to welcome the crowd. Perhaps we all knew then that James Taylor just sitting down with his guitar, playing his songs, was alone worth the price of admission and the long wait before we could see him live in the Philippines. He confirmed it when he opened with “Something in the Way She Moves,” which he said was the first original song he performed in public. His ageless voice made it seem like we were hearing it for the first time, and sure enough my mother was mouthing the lyrics along, undoubtedly as her father’s daughter again.

And if I’m well you can tell she’s been with me now
She’s been with me now quite a long, long time
And I feel fine

From time to time, my mother would fiddle with her purse, trying to find her phone so she could post parts of it on Facebook. It was her trying to hold on to the present as well, and it forever changed how I saw older people trying to record things on their phone “instead of living in the moment.” Because her getting a video of Mr. Taylor and his amazing band of performers is her living in the moment, before being taken out of it again.

And what a moment it was. Mr. Taylor played his songs just as one would hear them in the albums, which is a testament to how much he loves his work, and how much he trusts that the work he put out throughout the years were his best versions of those songs. There was a certain excitement in how he introduced “Long Ago and Far Away,” and described how they isolated Ms. Joni Mitchell’s backing track so that they could perform it live with her voice.

I am sure that anyone in his line-up of talented back-up performers could have sung the song with him in their own way, with their own touch. But performing with Ms. Mitchell’s haunting, soothing voice communicates a sense of satisfaction in how they did the song decades back; a sense of confidence in the power of good work done right – long ago and far away.

Dreaming the dreams I’ve dreamed, my friend
Loving the love I love

While it could have just been a night of Mr. Taylor sitting on a stool playing his hits – and I am sure people would have been satisfied – it was when he got up and took off his jacket for the next songs that made me reassess what years of performing great art could do to a man, and the people around him.

James Taylor is 76 years old, but I swear I saw a young man jumping around with his stove-pipe hat backwards, shredding steel strings while singing “Steamroller Blues.” Apparently the vocal breakdown when he sang “Country Road” was him just clearing his throat. I didn’t believe it until I saw it, even when I heard an audible gasp as the roadie swapped Mr. Taylor’s acoustic guitar for an electric one.

Meanwhile, my mother was there just stomping her feet and clapping her hands along like it was church. And it easily could have been. That performance was so powerful, I wouldn’t be surprised if it had healing properties. In fact, I truly believe it actually added years to all our lives.

Sail on home to Jesus won’t you good girls and boys
I’m all in pieces, you can have your own choice
But I can hear a heavenly band full of angels
And they’re coming to set me free

There are things I wish would go away in live performances that, sadly, I think I should just accept are part of the experience, like those people yelling out song titles in the middle of breaks. Are they trying to guess what the next song is? Are they ordering the performer to play that song? I just chalk it up as one of the many awkward things fans do to connect with the performer they like.

That being said, it was funny when Mr. Taylor held up his set list to somehow placate and reassure the people that he, at some point, will play “You’ve Got A Friend.” I would like to think he saved it for the second encore just to mess with people.

To be fair, that song urged people to call out his name.

When I was asked to write this article, I couldn’t wait to point out how funny it was that many Pinoys clamored for Taylor Swift, and the Universe sent us James Taylor instead – because there is a God and He loves my Mom. Ovation Productions knows what’s up.

But any attempt at making this piece more clever than it is would mean missing the opportunity to sincerely say how transportative Mr. Taylor and his merry band of seasoned artists were. As I held my mother’s hand while Mr. Taylor sang “How Sweet It is To Be Loved By You,” I could not help but feel grateful for the connection we were sharing. At that moment, we were both young again. I was her child and she, her father’s.

“I remember Tatay, she says to me again.

It broke my heart the next day when I asked if she could remember what we did last night. Be with a forgetful person long enough and you will know when they’re legitimately trying to remember or just guessing.

“What did we do?” she asked me back. I couldn’t answer. And we still had to pack our things before we could check out of the hotel we got near MOA and go home.

But as I drove us home, I played one of the songs we sang together, driving home from that blessing of a concert, just hoping to extend the magic for a little while longer. I asked her again, if she remembers what we saw last night.

“We saw James Taylor!” she answered with a smile. “I remembered as soon as you played the song.”

And I was her child again.

It won’t be long before another day
We gonna have a good time
And no one’s gonna take that time away
You can stay as long as you like


1 comment

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  1. MB

    Emotionally-touching piece. May the Lord bless your mom with more years that you may cherish. ❤️

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