• Review

REVIEW: James Taylor at Riverbend Music Center

Photo Cred: Michael Gabbard Photography

Rejoice, the pumpkin spice latte is back. Never mind that it’s also 90 degrees, humid as a Turkish bath house with an excessive heat warning and there’s almost a month of summer left, Starbucks has spoken, its autumn. But if you can manage to slow down and are you’re inclined to imbibe, maybe try a cold, refreshing Aperol spritz cocktail instead. It’s not a complicated drink (3 parts prosecco, 2 parts Aperol (a bitter orange liqueur), and one part club soda). Simple, but the parts have to play together. It’s a slightly tricky balance: too much Aperol and the bitterness dominates. Too much club soda and the drink is weak and watery. Too much prosecco and the whole thing gets buried in fizziness and lacks dimension. Made just right, it’s a delight. And so it is with James Taylor.

James Taylor’s voice and guitar playing are so smooth and pristine, it’s easy to write his music off as soft rock, but there is a complexity and bitterness to his lyrics that belies the sweet outer core. This is an artist who has seen major highs and lows – shattering his hands and feet in a motorcycle accident, kicking heroin, enduring vocal cord surgery, struggling with mental illness and alcohol as well as dealing with the ups and downs of trying to keep a music career that started when The Beatles were still together (Paul McCartney and George Harrison were so knocked out with his demos that Taylor was the first non-British act signed to their Apple label).

On the surface Taylor’s music can be as placid and inviting as the Cape Cod waters of Martha’s Vineyard where he spent the summers of his youth, but dark eddies swirl underneath the surface. All that hardship could force a singer into maudlin territory, but Taylor has balanced sweetness, bitterness and effervescence successfully for almost 60 years and it’s a refreshing treat on a muggy summer night. Call him what you will – James Vernon Taylor, JT, Sweet Baby James, he’s a legend and it’s comforting to still have him around to share an evening with.

At this stage in his career, Taylor doesn’t need an opening act, so last night it was just him and his band (expertly appointing songs with violin, keys, Hammond organ, chimes, congas, trumpet, sax, clarinet, accordion, bass and electric guitars as well as four background singers). The show opened with a short video of Taylor playing “Something in the Way She Moves” over the years. It was fascinating to see him morph from shaggy, long-haired folksinger into his current look. As the video played, the band stepped onto the stage and Taylor seamlessly picked up playing and singing as the video faded and he instantly showed what has made him such a durable star. It’s one of his oldest songs, one that impressed George Harrison so much he appropriated the lyric for his own classic “Something” off of the Abbey Road album. Taylor admitted it’s not his first song, but it’s the oldest one he’s willing to play in public. His sterling guitar style (influenced by childhood cello lessons and experimenting with his sister’s keyboards) shone; his smooth baritone sounded as warm as ever. Afterwards, he sat and chatted amiably, talking about meeting The Beatles and the start of his career. He’s a warm and open storyteller and over the course of two sets split over two plus hours, he showed over and over again why he’s still adored by millions (note: he is one of the most successful recording artists ever, over 100 million albums sold and counting).

Hearing a wider swath of Taylor’s music is enough to make one curse terrestrial radio where long ago someone decided on the handful of JT songs you will hear for the rest of your life. The rarer cuts are striking and show his range as a composer and lyricist. Beauties like “Copperline “have never received the exposure they deserve. Taylor calls it the equivalent of a landscape painting and piano and violin added gorgeous depth to it. In the song, Taylor reminisces about his childhood in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and the vivid imagery effortlessly recalls a more sedate country life (“Branch water and tomato wine/Creosote and turpentine/sour mash and new moonshine”) and the joy of youth (“First kiss ever I took/Like a page from a romance book/The sky opened and the earth shook/Down on Copperline”). As bucolic as those lyrics are, he laments it’s all gone, bulldozed over for new construction: “I tried to go back, as if I could/All spec house and plywood.” You really can’t go home again.

“Everybody Has the Blues” has moody lyrics: “Maybe you lost your job/And maybe you lost your girl/Maybe you feel like you’re losing your mind” but the tag “…That’s not the end of the world” and upbeat bounce of his playing and voice make it sound cheerful.

After a few songs, Taylor was feeling the heat and stripped off his jacket as some people in the crowd oohed and aahed. He good-naturedly joked, “It’s exciting, isn’t it? Later I may take out my teeth.”

“Mona” is a lovely ballad and can easily be mistaken for a romantic song, but the kicker is that it’s about a pig. He said, “People have been requesting it for years…this should put that to rest.” He spun a sweet story about getting the pig as a little football -sized piglet, then watching it get huge, old and ornery. It’s a pretty song that he cracks is about cold-blooded, premediated murder and he faux cries and wipes his eyes as he talks about Mona’s death. In the song, he imagines laying her to rest himself: “Oh, Mona, Mona you can close your eyes…I’ve got a 12-gauge surprise for you.” In reality, he claims she accidentally ate rat poison put down to keep rats out of her feed: “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!”

“Sweet Baby James” was a total gem and shone as accordion bits added new texture to a familiar song. The tune is a smooth cowboy lullaby and seems self- indulgent, but it’s an ode he wrote to his baby nephew (who was named after Taylor) tinged with his own melancholy reflection:

“There's a song that they sing when they take to the highway
A song that they sing when they take to the sea
A song that they sing of their home in the sky
Maybe you can believe it if it helps you to sleep
But singing seemed to work fine for me”

It still works fine. More than fine.

Taylor predominately stuck to acoustic guitars, but picked up an electric (“…a vast improvement over the gas and steam guitars that preceded it”) for “Steamroller Blues.” The song was written as goof on the suburban white kid blues bands that were emerging in the ‘70s in Greenwich Village. There’s a great video of Taylor doing a solo acoustic guitar version in 1970 and that version works beautifully. Last night he harnessed the electric guitar and full band to torch the song with electric guitar, brass and Hammond organ turning it into a genuine full-on blues barnstormer. It’s shocking, but he doesn’t use a plectrum at all, just using his thumb and fingers to pluck out the fiery song.

The show was surprisingly visual, with videos and lyrics accompanying each song and flashy light shows where the song merited them. “Mexico” got a salsified treatment as brilliant colors and patterns flashed behind the band. After a lovely version of “Up on the Roof,” the band took a break and ended their first set.

When the band returned, Taylor spent several minutes signing autographs for the lucky folks up front. He happily signed albums, ticket stubs, shirts and even an iPhone as the band settled in and got ready for the second half of the show.

“You’ve Got a Friend” was a surprise highlight. After all these years, he could easily sleepwalk through it, but he put warmth and heart into the song, making it sound fresh and vital. The four background singers, including his son Henry, added beautiful hymnal touches to a lush “Carolina in My Mind.” The crowd stood and applauded and Taylor was clearly moved by the response. He introduced “Raised Up Family” as a nasty little number about leaving family, the direct opposite of the warmth of “Shower the People.” Balance.

As the night wound down, the band vamped into “Your Smiling Face” and video cameras turned on the crowd and showed them dancing and singing along with joy. One fan held up a sign that said, “I’m seeing the best ‘Taylor’ this year!” Yeah. Maybe.

 After a quick encore of Eddie Cochrane’s “Summertime Blues,” “Shed a Little Light” and “You Can Close Your Eyes,” the night was over.

Ignore the Halloween candy and pumpkin beers on the shelves. Enjoy summer for a bit more, relax, take it in. Maybe put on some James Taylor deep cuts, meander around his back catalog, find something new to marvel at. The days will shorten and get colder soon enough; the lattes can wait for another day. As JT sings in “Secret o’ Life,” “Try not to try too hard, it's just a lovely ride/The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” Amen.

 1. Something in the Way She Moves
 2. Rainy Day Man
 3. Copperline
 4. Everybody Has the Blues
 5. Mona
 6. Some Days You Gotta Dance
 7. Sweet Baby James
 8. Country Road
 9. Steamroller Blues
 10. Mexico
 11. Up on the Roof
 12. Secret o' Life
 13. You Make It Easy
 14. You've Got a Friend
 15. Carolina in My Mind
 16. Raised Up Family
 17. Fire and Rain
 18. Shower the People
 19. Your Smiling Face
 20. Summertime Blues
 21. Shed a Little Light
 22. You Can Close Your Eyes