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Livingston Taylor brings his class act to Berkeley

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Livingston Taylor spends a portion of each year on the road, beguiling audiences with his wry wit and light pop-jazz sound. Then, when he returns home to suburban Boston, he imparts the lessons learned to the next generation of performers.
Taylor’s forum is the Berklee College of Music courses Stage Performance I and II; a more accurate title, he told me in an interview a few years back, would be the care and feeding of your audience. In class, the veteran singer-songwriter challenges his students to rethink the relationship between artist and audience. His book, “Stage Performance,” is drawn from the courses.
“There is an assumption when you go on stage that people want you to put something out,” he said. “Actually, nothing can be further from the truth. What people want you to do is they don’t want you to put out, they want you to take in. They want you to pay attention to them. (Songs) are conduits through which an artist and an audience have a conversation and those conversations are non-verbal conversations.
“What we do in my course, given that premise – the audience wants the artist to pay attention to them – is say the artists want the audience to join their club. To join my club, you buy concert tickets and buy CDs. As a result, I make a living and have a club.”
Taylor’s membership is built on nearly 50 years in the music industry. He performs June 4 at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley; his brother James headlines Concord Pavilion the night before.
Taylor released his self-titled debut in 1970, having landed a record deal – as did siblings Alex and Kate – in the wake of James’ success. Taylor shuttled between Epic and Capricorn for the next decade, recording the occasional minor hit – “Carolina Day,” “I Will Be in Love With You” – but never a best seller. He went the independent-label route in the late ‘80s, by which time he was already a full professor at Berklee.
These days, Taylor writes and tours and every few years finances a new album. He rounds up some of the best session players in the Northeast and releases the result on his own Whistling Dog label. “Last Alaska Moon” (2010) is his latest.
“It is kind of a jazz-pop sound, that’s the kind of music I make,” Taylor said. “It’s not unlike the music my brother James makes, although I tend to be a little more melodic than James is. My lyrics are probably less evocative, though my melodies tend to be a little more. I tend to be a little more of a dumb optimist than he is.”
The siblings remain close, and Livingston acknowledges an odd career debt to James.
“The greatness of James overshadowed me, but it gives me the freedom to observe without being observed,” he said. “There is nothing more precious than anonymity and your ability to blend into the background. What a blessing that is.
“When he got in the business in the late ‘60s, I wanted just what I’ve got today,” Taylor said. “What I really wanted to do was to use my music to have a conversation with people.
“I have a very, very deeply committed audience,” he added. “I owe them big time. They feed me, they house me, they clothe me, and they affirm the quality of the music I make. I travel all over the country seeing new places, meeting people, seeing old friends.”

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