I was not alive when James Taylor and his self-reflective brand of folk music were most popular. For my entire life, Taylor has been touring the country playing songs that are as familiar to my grandparents as they are to me. My own first experience with James Taylor was finding an old copy of Sweet Baby James amongst my grandma's records and noticing that the writer of these sweet and mellow songs also happened to be a total babe.
Sunday night, a much older James Taylor, one who's somewhat more balding than babely, played everyone's favorite relaxing, folky classics to a sold-out crowd of mostly middle-aged men in Hawaiian shirts at Verizon Theatre. After almost 50 years on the road, Taylor's stage presence is almost as vibrant as it was in 1966, and he brought some of the best musicians in the country to share in an intimate and musically brilliant performance in Grand Prairie.
Taylor's All Star Band was impressive on its own. "Blue" Lou Marini of The Blues Brothers fame was on the sax. Steve Gadd, one of the most talented drummers in the entire industry, played alongside award-winning Cuban percussionist Luis Conte. Taylor's biggest fans likely recognized Jimmy Johnson, his longtime bassist. Even if you've heard Sweet Baby James a thousand times, you've never heard it played by such a talented set of musicians.
Taylor gently opened the evening with "Something In The Way She Moves," which he credited to helping him get his "big break." George Harrison and Paul McCartney first heard Taylor play this song in a small crowd in London, then signed him to their record label. Even at age 66, when you listen to him patiently play this song, it's easy to see what Harrison and McCartney saw in a 19-year-old Taylor.
In his golden years, Taylor is more comfortable as an artist than ever. New tracks of his would fit in nicely with folk acts like Mumford and Sons on the airwaves, but they have one essential difference: Taylor's iconic voice. Even though this show was very high energy, it was impossible to not feel happy and relaxed at the end of the night.
Taylor's voice has held up remarkably well over the years. Listening to him perform live is actually even better than listening to the records, especially on familiar tracks like "Country Roads." Sure, some of these songs are lyrically forgettable, but most of that audience, myself included, would have happily listened to Taylor sing the phone book last night.
On "Millworker," a song about a woman working in a shoe manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania, Taylor was sad, solemn and respectful. Images of factory work displayed on screens behind the band helped emphasize the working class themes and rural roots of these tracks. With this performance alone, it was very clear as to why James Taylor enjoyed such commercial success at the peak of folk music's popularity: he was making some of the best.
In the short pauses between songs, Taylor's personality was on display. He's just like your dad, except he punctuates his dorky jokes, awkward dance moves and cringe-worthy puns with No. 1 hits. "Carolina In My Mind" didn't come until well into the first act. Taylor certainly doesn't shy away from playing the hits, and it felt as if he enjoyed playing this song last night as much as he did when it was written. The guitar picking was as precise as ever, as was his recollection of the homesickness for North Carolina that inspired this track while he was in London for the recording of The Beatles' White Album.
Taylor finished act one of this show with his iconic cover of Carole King's "You've Got A Friend." I think I may have been one of the few people in this audience that actually preferred King's version, but hearing Taylor perform it live changed my mind. She may have written the song, but it will be his forever. There were a few bluesy touches added to this classic and it sounded like he dropped a few "y'alls" in the lyrics for Texan posterity.
After a 20-minute intermission, Taylor eased into the second act with "Stretch of the Highway," one of his more rebellious tracks as evidenced by the tasteful inclusion of the word "poontang." As people filed into their seats, Taylor jammed with his band for a moment, then put the guitar down for "You And I Again," a tentatively named track from his new album that is still in the works. If this song was written recently, it's difficult to differentiate it from his hits from the '70s.
The energy began to pick up in act two with "Hour Til' Morning Comes," a 1981 song from Dad Loves His Work. "Steamroller Blues," a questionable parody of blues music was performed as a joke, complete with ugly blues-singing faces and a few seconds of ridiculous scat-singing. Taylor's attempt at dueling guitars at the end of this performative joke with legendary guitarist Mike Landau was indulgent and probably a minute too long, but entertaining nonetheless.
To be honest, the sheer number of love songs in Taylor's catalog had me expecting that this show was going to be a little heavy-handed with the sentimentality. But it is only in "You Are My Only One" that the cheese factor is uncomfortably high, which probably has something to do with the heartwarming images of happy couples, parents and babies and dog owners projected on the screens. It was also at this point that I first smelled weed being smoked, so props to whoever got their dad the hook-up on a bag for the show.
Between most of the tracks, Taylor likes to talk back to the fans that shout out requests and compliments. He sheepishly turned down a few marriage proposals, and ignored requests from fans to improvise versions of "Desperado" and "Freebird." But once Taylor began "Fire and Rain," the audience fell quiet.
"Mexico" is another crowd favorite. By this point in the show, fans fueled by $16 Tuaca-topped margaritas and tall boys of Bud Light were dancing in the aisles. I also overheard a couple of 21-year old SMU bros, the self-professed "youngest people at this thing," telling a group of wine-drunk middle-aged women that they'd come just to see that one song, and that they'd be leaving to study for a test as soon as it was over. Unfortunately for them and the people sitting nearby, Taylor played Mexico next-to-last.
For the encore, Taylor brought out his tweenaged son Henry for an excellent rendition of "How Sweet It Is" with the entire band and his talented group of backup singers. Unfortunately, the younger Taylor didn't do any solos, so it's impossible to tell if he's inherited his father's honey-coated vocal chords. The elder Taylor let the audience talk him into playing one more song, the aptly chosen "Shower the People."
By the end of the evening, Taylor had assembled a performance that exemplified just how at-home he is on the stage, while showcasing his remarkable skill as a musician and vocalist. While many of the most important musicians of his era have succumbed to flattened vocal ranges or arthritis, it's possible that James Taylor has only gotten better throughout the years.
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