A bit off the beaten path


JAMES TAYLOR’S solo tour is titled “One Man Band,” but the archetypal singer-songwriter isn’t going it alone. He’s supported by pianist Larry Goldings, and then there’s the show’s third and most imposing presence: a mechanical drum player that is wheeled onto the stage to bash like a blond-wood Bonham during two songs.

“If you’re doing two hours of just James Taylor music on guitar and piano, it needs some relief, you know,” says Taylor, who designed and built the 10-by-5-by-5-foot contraption with Gordon Fairfield, a cabinet maker near Taylor’s western Massachusetts home. “In order to have some up-tempo numbers, which is what the set lacked, we put the drum machine together.”

Made of marine-grade plywood, the device -- nicknamed Shamu by Taylor and his crew -- is powered by a small electric motor that rotates a large cylinder fitted with “lifters.” These plastic fins raise long, laminated-wood arms with drumsticks taped to their ends that then fall and strike cymbal, snare and cowbell. Two heavy beams get a bass-drum sound from the box that juts out from the mechanism, and the fins can be repositioned in the cylinder’s thousand-plus holes to play different patterns.


“It’s like a kinetic sculpture; it has an interesting thing in itself,” says Taylor, who’s had a taste for tinkering since his childhood. “It’s archaic, because you can get a much better rhythm part with much finer sounds and everything from a Yamaha box or a LinnDrum or something like that. But this does have a certain rawness to it.”


-- Richard Cromelin