If you came of age in the cultural crucible of the late 1960s, like most of the crowd at Verizon Arena last Friday night, James Taylor is the embodiment of the singer-songwriter.
With the release of his second album in 1970, hits like “Fire and Rain” and “Sweet Baby James” made Taylor a star in the new style of music that included Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.
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The young Taylor was the perfect romantic troubadour: beautiful, but troubled, talented, honest. His pure voice and elegant guitar stylings sent his music straight to the top of the charts. Remarkably, almost fifty years later, the 70-year-old, bald, professorial Taylor — with his craggy face, sagging neck and a voice that isn’t quite as effortless and true — still shines bright. His live performance enthralled the crowd of nearly 9,000 from the moment he walked on stage until the very end.
Notably, Taylor was the first artist signed by the Beatles’ Apple Records label. As a nervous twenty-year old, he auditioned for George Harrison and Paul McCartney. After a few songs, as the story goes, they turned to each other and said, “He’s got it.” He still does.
Before the show, a subdued crowd assembled in the arena, milling beneath the blue toned sodium vapor lights by the concession stands; grandparents gathered for a rock concert.
The show kicked off around the 7:30 pm mark as Taylor took the stage, looking lean, lanky and Gary Cooperish in his dark jacket and newsboy cap. The crowd came to life, leapt to their feet, cheering and applauding.
Taylor introduced Bonnie Raitt and her band, heaping praise on her and setting a warm, intimate tone that contrasted with the dreary February night.
Raitt was radiant in her turquoise and coral blouse, her voice as peerless as ever, her slide playing meticulous, her bandmates tight. The hour-long set was filled with hits like “Nick of Time,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” “Need You Tonight.” Behind her, a beautiful screened backdrop shifted hues as she moved from her trusty ’69 Stratocaster to acoustic guitar and back.
An acclaimed vocalist, Raitt is also a startlingly skilled slide player – in taste, tone and sensitivity in league with Lowell George, Duane Allman, Derek Trucks – and her playing the perfect counterpart to her soulful singing.
The band of seasoned players were flawless as she moved thru the set. Taylor appeared for the last song, a duet of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love,” and they closed things out with a bang.
After a brief intermission and rapid set change, Taylor and his All Star band — vocalists Kate Markowitz, Arnold McCuller and Dorian Holley; vocalist/fiddler Andrea Zonn; pianist Larry Goldings; horn players Walt Fowler and Lou Marini; guitarists Michael Landau and Jimmy Johnson; percussionists Chad Wackerman and Michito Sanchez — took the stage. Taylor’s musicality is stronger today than it was in his folk rock genesis; Years of exploration into jazz stylings reveal themselves in his chord choices and in his sensibilities. His performance was enhanced by the Broadway-style stage backdrop of large projection screens, fixed cameras, roving cameramen and six large retro Hollywood set lights.
The screens first showed Taylor’s boyhood home. Then as the songs changed, they displayed images ranging from childhood photos of the musicians to old films and photos of Taylor, railroads, Chuck Berry, Tarzan, a pet pug, Mexican floral colors…..on and on it went. Combined with the musicianship, choreography and jokes honed over the past few years of touring, the execution was seamless.
Taylor played his familiar song list — “Country Road,” “Carolina in My Mind,” “Walking Man,” Handy Man,” “Steamroller,” “Up On The Roof” — with new and surprising melodic and instrumental variations, making them fresh and alive. His connection with the audience was palpable and he created the communal, tribal sensation that powered so much of ‘60s popular music and made musicians near cultural gods.
By the end of the evening, when he said, “Thank you, Little Rock, for having us. You’re such a great audience,” you felt thankful to be there, glad you had spent your money, gotten out of your house on a lousy winter night, dealt with the traffic, the rain, the hassle because you and thousands of others like you had been on your feet — clapping, laughing, smiling, singing — with James and the band “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You” over and over again.
The sad part came when they turned up the lights, the show was over, and you were walking back to your car feeling the Taylor magic slowly slipping away.
“When this old world starts a getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I’m gonna climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space….
Up on the roof.’’