“I think of my shows as a fresh batch of sourdough starter,” said Livingston Taylor, who will perform his annual concert at the Old Whaling Church on Saturday, July 1. “The core has been around for decades, but all the time you’re adding fresh to it.”
Mr. Taylor is a master at keeping performances fresh. In fact, he teaches a class on stage performance at Berklee College of Music. “There is no question that to have examined stage performance for over 28 years, teaching thousands of students, and critiquing tens of thousands of performances, you really get a sense as to how to be on stage, what to do onstage, and how to be in the moment,” Mr. Taylor said. “These are things that are teachable, and these are techniques you can develop.”
Mr. Taylor is also an accomplished songwriter — he just released his 19th album, “Safe Home,” — and he thrives on the exploration and problem solving involved in writing. “Songs are intricate puzzles, Rubik’s cubes that need to be solved,” Mr. Taylor said. “They have a multitude of problems, and the solving of those puzzles is very gratifying.”
Mr. Taylor says this tendency to tinker comes naturally to him. “I was born curious. I believe on a spiritual level that God wants us to solve the puzzles of the universe,” he said. Recently, he’s become very interested in energy storage technology: anodes, cathodes, electrolytes, ions, and the ways humans manage the inevitable consumption of energy. “It’s not to the exclusion of music,” Mr. Taylor said. “Being able to solve musical puzzles allows me to solve and contemplate other puzzles as well.”
Stage performance is one puzzle Mr. Taylor seems to have unlocked, or at least explored to great depths. “My class is an exploration of what it means to perform. It’s a class about how to be on stage, why we are on stage, why people come and see us, and what our is responsibility on stage. It’s about how to see and care for an audience.”
That connection to the audience is key. Mr. Taylor said when he is on stage, “what I’m thinking about, above all else, is being with my audience in a state of real joy and gratitude to be able to spend time with them.”
The audience must feel the same way — the annual Whaling Church performance is always well attended, and the crowd has even spilled onto the lawn in previous years. Many audience members are repeat customers, and Mr. Taylor remains devoted to them. “I come back because there’s a bit of tradition involved,” Mr. Taylor said. “It’s one of these places — when I’m out at a strange venue in a strange place — I think about the Whaling Church, and for me it’s like thinking about going home.”
But tradition is not the same thing as repetition, and Mr. Taylor is careful to keep his shows interesting and his audience engaged. “I’m always circulating stuff in, new experiments, new songs, new ideas,” Mr. Taylor said. What keeps the community coming back is the propensity of music to bring people together.
“The familiarity of music gives us a common meeting point,” Mr. Taylor said. “Music doesn’t ‘heal’ you — that’s a little bit more New Agey than I like to get in my thinking. What heals you is the familiarity, and the idea that the world has constant things in it, and music is one of those things. It gives you a point to re-reference.”
Perhaps that is at the core of why crowds keep returning to the Old Whaling Church each summer. “After coming to see me, they feel better about themselves,” Mr. Taylor said. “Nobody comes back to a show if they are not getting something from it. It affirms for them that they have value, that they are worthwhile, that they are seen, they are heard, and they are important. My audiences tend to be extremely relaxed, because they realize when I get onstage, I’ve got them. They’re safe.”
Livingston Taylor will perform at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown on Saturday, July 1, at 7:30 pm with his nephew, Isaac Taylor, and his former student, Matt Cusson. Tickets are $30 and available at brownpapertickets.com.