And yet, it has to be tough to be them.
For example, Thanksgiving at the Taylor house:
Livingston: Hey, Jon Landau is producing my first album! (1970)
Hey, I wrote a children's book! (1988)
Hey, I have, like, 14 albums out! (1999)
Hey, I'm an Artist-in-Residence at Harvard! (2000)
James: I wrote "Fire and Rain."
Livingston: Damn it.
And Janis Ian. Also tough! The woman has won countless awards. And she has written songs stadiums across the world have sung in a language that was not their own. Hell, she won a Grammy in 1975 over Linda Ronstadt. And that was during the roller skates and hot pants period! Yet, when I spoke to friends about attending the concert, most thought Ian had come to a tragic end somewhere along the line. Something involving opaque hose and a leaky gas stove.
I assure you that both are more than alive and my research prior to the concert revealed careers, for both artists, which have been prolific and thoughtful and even heroic in ways.
And, listen, when it comes to writing song lyrics, the poetry of a Janis Ian song can rival the best. To me, her work is most like the studied brilliance of Leonard Cohen: truly poetic in the sense that each and every word is not just a pearl, but a pearl culled from pearls.
Sheldon Hall is normally a mixed crowd; analysis would probably credit that to the acts they book. I had no such analysis. But Friday night looked a bit like a Gray Panthers meeting. The average age, by my guess, was approximately 3 times "At Seventeen." Also, there was a guy who either was a leprechaun or missed the St. Patty's Day party completely.
Later in the evening we learned Taylor and Ian take turns opening and it was the lanky Taylor who ambled out on stage first. Showing his roots in both North Carolina and New England, his bow tied demeanor suggests a genial Yankee decentness and he is quite at ease as he, literally, wrote a book on stage performance. Ayup, y'all.
Taylor began with the beautiful "First Time Love" and flowed into "Must Be Doing Something Right." His easy fingerpicking is sometimes like that of his older brother, but more often is not. The same is true of his voice. But he has his own kind of ease with the audience, one that allows him to stop songs to clown and vamp, and the feeling is downright homey. You half expected him to ask if you'd warm up his coffee.
Taylor's set list seemed to be off the cuff and was as eclectic as his demeanor. In addition to many of his songs, it included Jerome Kern's "Pick Yourself Up," Lennon and McCartney's "Blackbird" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" and "A Wonderful Guy." But the night's most sublime and intimate moment came during Taylor's encore. Yes, he got an opening-act standing ovation and came back for an encore. You don't see that often.
Taylor began the encore with "Merry Old Land of Oz" ("Rub rub here, rub rub there...") and transitioned into "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and, as he did, he suggested that the audience sing. Oh, and that they did. The acoustics in the fine old Sheldon never held aloft a prettier, more spontaneous sound. Even Taylor was taken aback by the hushed beauty. Nearly the whole audience sang the nearly the whole song with him.
Full disclosure: my eyes leaked. I've never experienced anything quite like it at a concert. But I saw a lot of cheek wiping going on when the lights came up for intermission. It's good to have another measure because organic group-think often moves me, sometimes inappropriately. I get misty when "the wave" breaks out at a ball game.
After a break that never seems like it's going to be long enough for the line at the Sheldon Ladies' Room, Janis Ian took the stage. And let's just get this out of the way: she's short. Pretty short. The physical differences between her and Livingston beg the comparison to Mutt and Jeff but I'm taking the high road and saying Lincoln and Douglas. Did her guitar have a kitty on it? No, that's a joke.
Ian's voice is still very strong and capable of both great power and hushed brilliance which gives her great emotive capacity. Her guitar playing is deft and like her voice, capable of great difference of style and tone and emphasis. While Ian announced her portion as "the depressing half of the show," her varied song selection kept the audience rapt as she played "This Through the Years," "Society's Child" and "Between the Lines." She showed her own brand of storytelling and lighter songs as she spoke and sang, quite humorously, about her writing an autobiography and getting married in Canada to her partner.
Ian closed her set with a beautiful, humble introduction to her classic "At Seventeen" and the crowd was on its feet before she left the stage. Her first encore was a completely unplugged version of her song, and Roberta Flack's hit, "Jesse," while sitting on a hard shell guitar case, saying she was too old to stand so long.
After another enthusiastic standing ovation, Ian brought out Taylor for a second encore and they stumbled through an improvised and fun version of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You, Babe," which was introduced as "an old English folk song we both had to learn." The audience sang along again, to the delight of both, as they seemed to need some help with the lyrics.
I don't recall a more relaxed, easy night of music and laughter and warmth.
Both artists are firmly committed to their craft and to their audiences and both Janis Ian and Livingston Taylor are due respect more than fleeting fame. Friday night the audience at the Sheldon affectionately gave it to them. But let's hope it doesn't go to their heads or we'll never get invited back to their living room.