Ben Taylor strikes out on his own
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 15, 2003) – From Julian and Sean Lennon to Zak Starkey and Jakob Dylan, there’s a whole new generation of rock musicians condemned to be compared to their more famous parents – usually but not always their fathers. They will never know what it might have been like to have been sprung fully formed – or to have become musicians like their fathers did, out of rebellion against their grandparents’ middle-class values -- and how they might have been received.

Ben Taylor, who performed with his band at Club Helsinki on Thursday night, faces a double whammy as the progeny of James Taylor and Carly Simon. Sure, he could have gone back two generations and tapped into the ancestral professions of medicine (on his father’s side) or publishing (on his mother’s). But he was apparently bitten by the music bug, and as it turns out, he shows plenty of aptitude.

Taylor seemed totally at home and at ease on stage. A lean, rangy presence, he betrayed none of the typical nervousness, fumbling or aloofness that more often than not is characteristic of frontmen of his generation. In fact, he’s a natural entertainer, delivering many of his pop- and folk-rock songs with a hand-held mike, executing deep knee-bends and pointing and gesturing like a rapper.

And then there’s his voice. There are no two ways about it – the resemblance to his father’s voice is remarkable. Something in the way he phrases, something in the way he forms his words, is remarkably like James Taylor. More subtly, however, his voice derives from his mother; it’s filled with her richer creaminess, sense of intimacy and length of line, and it’s the best thing he had going for him.

His songs are less derivative of his parents’ work -- and also less well-defined. “Island” explored a funky soul groove, and “Let It Grow,” about legalizing marijuana, married hard-rock guitar licks to Beatlesque harmonies. “Lonely Magic” was a kinder, gentler version of rap-rock, and “Rain” was moody, minor-key folk-pop. Taylor dipped into some Ben Folds-style, piano-based pop on “We’re the Lucky Ones,” and tried his hand at reggae on “You Must Have Fallen.”

His smooth vocals contrasted with some of his harder-edged material, which set up an interesting dynamic, although it remains to be seen how many listeners would buy into it. He chose a few offbeat songs to cover, including John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” the Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” given a particularly psychedelic treatment, and Hall and Oates’s “Rich Girl.”

So in the end, Taylor has the moves, he has the voice, and he has the presence and personality needed to get across. What he so far lacks, however, is the killer app – the batch of radio-ready hits that could make him a star. But that’s OK, he has plenty of time. It took Jakob Dylan’s band the Wallflowers two albums separated by four years before the world was ready to see him as anything other than a second-generation novelty. Taylor has already proved that he’s not.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 16, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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