Livingston Taylor and Karla Bonoff have been around for decades, making great music, but flying under the radar. But they truly have great songs to share, as they showed in their annual Home for the Holidays show recently at The Birchmere.
Livingston is the younger brother of James Taylor. It’s a little known fact that all three siblings in the family, including their sister Kate, are musicians. Now 73, he’s been playing music and writing songs for over 50 years, since he was 17.
Liv a fine acoustic guitar player in addition to writing terrific songs. In addition to recording music and performing, he also taught for many years at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, which makes sense, as he kind of looks like an academic. This is not a criticism! He’s very dapper.
Liv, of course, hails from North Carolina; Karla Bonoff grew up in southern California. I was amused to find out she’s one of several Jewish artists who’ve made a Christmas album. Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond, off the top of my head, have done it, too, and why shouldn’t we be able to profit off a commercialized holiday like everyone else? (An acquaintance of mine recently pointed out Billy Joel never wrote a Christmas song, but, then, Billy Joel hasn’t written anything in more than 30 years. My acquaintance’s reply to this fact was “Don’t jinx us.”) Bonoff struggled to make it as a songwriter until her work was discovered by Linda Ronstadt, who recorded three of her songs.
I have a confession to make: I don’t really care for Christmas music. So why would I go to this show, which was holiday-themed, at The Birchmere on Dec. 12? The simple answer: I like these artists! This was my only opportunity to see them live and check them off of my bucket list. Would I have preferred to see them in some other context? Sure. But the reality is that holiday tours and shows make money, and these artists have a bottom line to meet.
The Birchmere show started off with Liv and Karla both on stage, joined by their guitarist, duetting on “City Lights.” After the song, Karla and the guitarist left the stage, and Liv did several songs by himself. Like his brother, Liv celebrates his Carolina heritage in songs like “Carolina Day,” which he wrote when he was 17.
Stream “Carolina Day” by Livingston Taylor on YouTube:
Liv also likes to perform standards, like the pop classic “Pick Yourself Up,” by Jerome Kern, who was born, he explained, in 1885. “All Jerome Kern ever wanted to be was a great pop songwriter,” he said, “and was he ever.” Kerm, he told the audience, was the model for later giants like George and Ira Gershwin. Liv also did several of his original numbers: “I Must Be Doing Something Right” and “Everybody’s Just Like Me,” along with the seasonal “Christmas Is Almost Here.”
Karla came out and took over, playing Joni Mitchell’s “River” on piano. If you’re going to do a Christmas song, you might as well cover Joni. Before her next song, Karla talked about her struggles in the ’70s, when she worked in a cat kennel in Los Angeles, cleaning out litter boxes. A friend of hers played “Lose Again” for Linda Ronstadt at soundcheck, and Ronstadt fell in love with the song and recorded it. Bonoff quit her job at the cat kennel, and, I assume, has never returned to cleaning litter boxes, at least in a vocational setting. (I don’t know what her pet situation is.) Karla followed “Lose Again” with another original song, “Please Be The One,” and then Liv came back for a duet of the Rogers and Hammerstein classic “Getting to Know You.” Karla finished the first set with the Scottish traditional ballad “The Water Is Wide.”
Watch Karla Bonoff perform “The Water Is Wide” live on YouTube:
For the second set, Liv and Karla flipped things around, with Karla starting the set. She explained how her first number, “All My Life,” was written for a movie, and then the record company when out of business. (Don’t you hate when that happens? I know I do!) Her second tune was the Christmas classic “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire” by Mel Torme. Fun fact: Torme, known as “The Velvet Fog,” was the favorite singer of Judge Harry T. Stone on the classic ’80s sitcom Night Court, and even appeared on the show. After the Torme cover, Bonoff did another couple of her songs, “Someone To Lay Down Beside Me”and “Isn’t It Always Love.”
After “Isn’t It Always Love,” Liv came out and Karla took a break. Liv explained how, a fears year ago, he went over to London and recorded several songs with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. One of those songs was “Answer My Prayer.” This was followed by one of his original holiday songs, “My Perfect Christmas Day.” Then he went back to standards with a medley of “Merry Old Land of Oz” and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Then he did “Hell of A Ride,” and Karla came back to the stage. They finished the set proper with a duet of “Silent,” then donned Santa hats for their encore of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”
After the show, I was delighted to have the chance to briefly meet Karla and have her sign her excellent self-titled debut. It was a chill, pleasant evening, and I didn’t even mind the Christmas songs that much.