Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: James Taylor: Live at the Beacon Theatre (1998)
Studio Line: Sony Music

On May 30, 1998, James Taylor and his band took the stage at New York's Beacon Theater for an extraordinary concert of greatest hits, personal favorites and live surprises. The magical evening became the first-ever concert to be broadcast live nationwide on the PBS network. This DVD edition contains 25 full-length James Taylor performances, including three not originally seen on the broadcast, complete with on-stage warmth and wit that have made James Taylor one of the world's most beloved entertainers for more than three decades.

Director: NA
Cast: James Taylor
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English DD 5.1 & Digital Stereo; subtitles English, French; single sided - dual layered; 27 chapters; Not Rated; 110 min.; $24.98; street date 10/6/98.
Supplements: Band Bios; Exclusive Promotional Videos; Behind-the-Scenes Interviews; Complete Discography.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/A/C

In the interest of fairness, I won't provide any comments that relate to my opinions of the music featured on James Taylor Live at the Beacon Theatre. Why? Because I frankly can't stand him; I only borrowed this DVD from a friend out of curiosity. I thought I’d check out the picture and sound quality and write up a review of it. It just doesn't seem right for me to go out of my way to view this DVD and then rip apart the content. (Yeah, that never stopped me before, but it's a new year - I'm trying to get off on the right foot!)

So I'll leave Sweet Baby James alone, but I will comment on the quality of the production itself; despite my lack of affection for the featured artist, I should be able to examine the effectiveness of the presentation without any snotty remarks. (Well, I'll try, at least.)

James Taylor Live nicely presents his live show. However, I wasn’t wild about some of it because the producers seemed far too desperate to "liven things up;" instead of being content to casually document the proceedings, the Taylor video appears overly kinetic. Taylor is a pretty laid-back performer; as such, standard music video techniques seem inappropriate for a film of his work.

The program doesn't go overboard with the MTV-style presentation, but I still felt it looked too eager to seem flashy. The edits aren't "rapid fire," but they seem overly frequent; the camera rarely rests on one subject for long. The camera also rarely rests; most of the shots in this video come from a camera that's moving in some way. This approach seems acceptable for livelier songs like "Your Smiling Face", but detracts from the slower tunes.

Still, it's a decent presentation. I wish the director had eased off the caffeine that day, but it still seems watchable once you get used to the pace. Even though I disliked the music, this video put me in the mood to go to a concert, and that's a good effect.

The DVD:

James Taylor Live At the Beacon Theatre appears in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; since it's fullscreen, the program does not require 16X9 enhancement and none is present.

In regard to its picture, the Taylor program succeeds to a very great degree. The image seems consistently very good and nicely reproduces the concert. It looks sharp from start to finish and displays no signs of moiré effects or jagged edges. The source material seems clean and fresh; I discerned no problems with it.

Colors are generally subdued, but appropriately so, since this isn't a flashy show. These hues look accurate and adequately saturated, with no signs of bleeding or other problems. Black levels are also just fine, and shadow detail seems good.James Taylor Live isn't a stunningly strong picture, but it's always quite nice and seems very watchable.

Even better is the terrific Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. (The DVD also offers a good PCM stereo version, but I preferred the Dolby track.) The low end seemed excellent; the bass is extremely deep and solid, with no boominess or excessive rigidity.

Happily, that rich low end in no way negatively affects the rest of the audio, which is crystal-clear and well-defined. The front channels dominate with a neatly spaced stereo presentation; instrumentation is localized but not excessively so and it blends together well. Taylor's vocals are crisp and clear, as are all of the instruments. Surround usage remains fairly subdued; while we mainly hear crowd noise from the rears, some percussion and backing vocals also stem from those channels. James Taylor offers what is probably the second best DVD musical audio I've heard to date, trailing only the amazing Roy Orbison: Black and White Night program.

And the DVD even packs in a few supplements! It's not a cornucopia, but I was pleasantly surprised at the breadth and quality of the extras presented on James Taylor, especially since most DVDs offer little to nothing.

First of all, the DVD provides eight minutes of a decently interesting interview with Taylor. He talks about his band, how he chooses which songs to play, and other topics such as his fun appearance on a 1994 Simpsons episode. Although I don't like the man's work, I found these bits to be fairly enjoyable.

We also see two music videos from Taylor, one for "Copperline" and another for "Enough to Be On Your Way". The quality of these clips is pretty spotty. Both offer PCM stereo sound that's decent but not great - it certainly pales in comparison with the concert itself. "Copperline" is a pretty standard performance piece that shows James and the band singing the ditty around a campfire; the image looks pretty blah and blotchy. A bit more interesting is "Enough to Be On Your Way", a semi-conceptual video that features Barbara Hershey. It also looks a lot better; while the quality isn't great, it's still pretty good.

A very nice biography of Taylor appears, as well as shorter but still solid listings for most of his band members. We also receive a nicely annotated discography for Taylor. It mentions all of his albums and singles and even notes well-known participants in each of the projects. All of these text pieces seemed well thought out and add to the presentation.

Finally, James Taylor includes subtitles for the lyrics to all of the songs. Not only that, but it includes subtitles for all of Taylor's between songs banter. Not only that, but it includes subtitles for all of these things in both English and French. Great job, folks!

As a program, James Taylor Live At the Beacon Theatre is a very well-presented piece. I have absolutely no qualms recommending it to his fans. The picture looks very good, the audio is absolutely fantastic, and it even tosses in some nice extras. Look at it this way: this DVD is so good that I actually briefly wished I liked the man's music. If a sentiment like that from a long-time JT hater like myself doesn't count as a strong endorsement, then what does?

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