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Something in the way he sings

Ben Taylor, son of folk singer James Taylor, debuts his first CD.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 2, 2003



When Ben Taylor tells you that references to his famous father are laced throughout the lyrics on his inaugural CD, "Famous Among the Barns," it's a challenge you have to accept.

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When he sings, "I am the sun/ That's all I've ever been since I begun," you wonder if he could be writing about being the child of James Taylor, the folk music legend. Perhaps suggesting what to do when you find yourself in that position, the song concludes, "I'm making up my mind to shine ... All I make is light."

And when Taylor the Younger covers the Zombies classic hit "Time of the Season," these lyrics pop out: "What's your name? Who's your daddy? ... Has he taken any time/ to show you what you need to live?"

In Ben Taylor's case, the answer would have to be a big "yes." And you can add his mother to that answer, too - another singer-songwriter by the name of Carly Simon.

In fact, James Taylor turned down a chance to sing the national anthem at opening day for the Red Sox last month to see his son perform at Boston's Orpheum Theater as the opening act for folk singer Dar Williams. It was the first time Taylor the Elder had seen the Ben Taylor Band perform.

"I've been dreaming about playing for my father [for] such a long time that this was really one of the biggest nights of my life," Ben Taylor says. Before the show, James went up to sit with his son on the old theater's stage, two sets of long legs dangling over the edge, while they talked and laughed. The Orpheum, which hosted the Rolling Stones last year, is the biggest live venue Ben has played so far.

Asked about his son's style, James Taylor says, "I can hear things in [Ben's] music from when he was growing up. He's the product of his sources." He contributed some background vocals to the album, but he dismisses his contribution, adding quickly, "It's all Ben's writing."

Sitting on a folding chair in a tiny backstage dressing room before the show, and afterward flopping on a seat in a big blue tour bus, Ben Taylor talks about the evening and his career. When he gets "The Question" - What's it like being the son of famous parents? - he talks about them freely and warmly. His folks didn't give him formal piano or guitar lessons or "get on you once a week" to see what he'd learned. "It was more like I'd say, 'Hey, could you teach me how to play this?' And then a month later, I'd say, 'Hey, what do you think of this?' "

He says he still asks his parents for advice "every chance I get. They're great sounding boards." His dad is his "idol" as a performer. "There are two kinds of families. There's the family you've got at home and the family you've got on the road. And he is the most incredible leader of the family that's on the road. He takes care of his people like you wouldn't believe."

His mother, author of hits such as "Nobody Does It Better" and "You're So Vain," is simply "the best songwriter I could ever imagine. She's a methodical, magical conjurer of music. I can't say enough about what a genius she is, and she really helps me."

A few years back, Simon gave him a "songwriting manual" with tips on what to do and not do. "I haven't used it for a couple of years," he says. But there's really no need. He lives near her on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Mass. (His parents separated when he was a young child.) "She's close at hand, and I can bounce a new song off her," Taylor says. "She's the one who dissects my songs and says, 'Ehhhh. I dunno.' "

Taylor, who is in his mid-20s, thought he had launched his career a few years back with Sony. He recorded an album, but as often happens, it never got released. Through Sony, he met drummer Larry Ciancia, who previously had backed up Fiona Apple, Macy Gray, and Everlast, and the two decided to start an independent band. They added three young musicians and made the album in a barn in Ciancia's native Colorado. Since then, the Ben Taylor Band has been playing mostly clubs and bars, with Taylor patiently signing T-shirts and CDs for fans afterward.

When they opened for Willie Nelson, nobody would buy their CD at the shows, says drummer Ciancia, who's the group's unofficial business manager. ("I'm the mother hen," he explains.) But the Boston gig may have been a breakthrough. The audience, there to see folk singer Williams, at first gave Taylor a polite hearing, not sure that his self-described "neopsychedelic folk funk" was what they came for. But late in his 45-minute set, Taylor put them on their feet, dancing and roaring applause. Afterward, Ciancia happily estimated the band may have sold 90 albums in the lobby.

Taylor's mellow, burnished baritone bears a strong resemblance to his father's, but his musical tastes are all his own. "Left to my own devices, I'll lock myself in a room and listen to nothing but rap music," he confesses.

Onstage, he moves his lanky 6 ft., 4 in., frame with considerable grace, perhaps the product of his interest in martial arts. His sweet folk-singer voice makes for a tangy contrast with his rapper-style movements and sometimes rapid-fire lyrics. So far, core fans seem to be women in their 20s and 30s, Ciancia says. That's the audience Taylor's dad appealed to a generation ago. But Ben Taylor will have none of that talk. Our fans, he says with a wide innocent grin, are "mostly golf enthusiasts."

The Ben Taylor Band is opening for Dar Williams on tour until June 7. See www.bentaylorband.com for details.

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