On Saturday night, the lights will dim in the Whaling Church in Edgartown as Livingston Taylor strums the first notes of his set. Mr. Taylor has not used a set list at a show since 1974 and until the concert starts, he will not know what songs he will play or how he will compose himself on stage. Instead, he will watch the audience, following their lead to deliver the best possible performance that he can for that particular audience at that particular moment.
“I will look forward two or three songs and figure out where I want the show to be, how the audience feels, whether they need to be calmed down, whether they need to be lifted up, brought together or, for that matter, separated apart,” said Mr. Taylor on Monday afternoon on the porch of Alley’s General Store. “I’m making the music, but I’m always watching it land, and their reaction informs what I do moment to moment. It’s a continual process of feedback. That’s why I am better on stage than I am on a record.”
While Mr. Taylor enjoys every show he plays, playing on Martha’s Vineyard is a special treat because of the crowd.
“It’s an audience that is familiar with me, that likes me. They are on vacation, they are in an idle time. It’s generally a very favorable place for me to play,” said Mr. Taylor.
Although over his 40-year career Mr. Taylor has recorded multiple top 40 hits and toured with some of the biggest bands in the world, including Jimmy Buffett and Jethro Tull, he remains extraordinarily gracious of his audience. He never forgets that without his audience and his fans, he would not have a career as a musician, and he keeps that in mind every time he steps on stage.
For Mr. Taylor, live music is an expression of thanks to his supporters. Every decision he makes on stage, every song he plays, every word he speaks, is for the audience.
“The audience’s mere presence means you get to live another day. When I am in the presence of my audience, I am in a state of real joy.”
For 25 years now, Mr. Taylor has been teaching live music performance at Berklee School of Music in Boston, and the number one piece of advice he gives his students is to remember that they need the audience more than the audience needs them. While he recognizes that live music is not necessarily for everybody, Mr. Taylor has little patience for artists who appear nervous on stage.
“Nervousness is self-centered behavior,” he said. “The audience is not paying you to think about yourself. They are paying you to think about them. So if you are nervous, here is my advice for my students, knock it off. Stop it right now and don’t do it again. If you are not comfortable, if the audience makes you sick and feel poorly, then stop doing it. Go away.”
Of course, everybody gets nervous on stage sometimes, even Mr. Taylor. When this happens, he works hard to snap out of his own head. He recognizes that nervousness is usually a symptom of other problems, and he uses the feeling as a reason to look inward and fix any issues that may have come to the surface.
For the most part though, Mr. Taylor feels completely comfortable on the stage because he loves to spend time with the people who have helped his career along for so many years. When he looks out into the audience, he feels the love and support of the people who have kept his career alive and he is filled with a joy which he shares with everybody in the room.
Livingston Taylor performs at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown at 7:30 p.m on Saturday, July 5. Be prepared for a surprise opening act.