July 21, 2012
Kansas City, MO USA
Review by David Brais
Photos by Steve Thompson
It was obvious from the first notes out of James Taylor's mouth that after some 45 years of recording music, his voice still has that 24-carat golden touch to it. Dressed casually in faded blue jeans, a brown sport's jacket and an olive green, long-sleeve shirt, the 64-year old troubadour looked as comfortable on stage as he would be chatting with you in your own living room.
This folk icon provided an evening of classic moments that was greatly appreciated by the sold-out audience at the Jacob's Pavilion. As the lanky performer casually strolled out on stage waving to the audience, he strapped on his acoustic guitar and explained to the audience, "This was one of my first farewell-to-show-business songs". He then reached into his storied past to perform the hidden gem, "Hey Mister, That's Me on the Jukebox" from his 1971 masterpiece, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.
James Taylor's musical talents, along with his ability to invite everyone to share in his life's stories, captured the audience's interest from the outset. His personal touch was evident early on when he explained the origins of his very first hit, "Carolina on My Mind." The song was recorded for his 1968 debut. He was the first and only American artist, signed by the Beatles for their Apple record label. "It was the best year of my life," he told the audience. "It was like a door had been opened and the rest of my life was on the other side. It was your classic big break story." He then informed the crowd that George Harrison and Ringo Starr appeared on the original version of his breakout single. Again, personal touches like this would be common place throughout the evening.
The Jacobs Pavilion proved to be a convenient backdrop to Taylor's performance in more ways than one. Because it is situated so close to the Cuyahoga River, (within shouting distance to passing ships), boats traveling on the water behind the amphitheater, from time to time, often contribute special tunes of their own in the form of a fog horn. As the singer was introducing vocalist / violin player Andrea Zonn, the 767-foot ore boat Pathfinder sounded off. With the crowd laughing, the band tried to mimic the sound of the horn with their instruments as their leader shouted out, "Hey Captain, play it again!"
The ‘had-to-be-there' moment was further enhanced as JT looked over at the passing vessel and called out "Avast there, ahoy!" to the crew watching him from the deck. Coincidentally,Taylor proceeded to introduce "The Frozen Man". This composition was inspired by an article the musician had read in a National Geographic article. The body of an unfortunate explorer had been found one hundred years after he it been lost on a polar expedition. Ironically, the Pathfinder's presence created a special vibe to the song. In fa ct, the ore boat did not completely pass by until Taylor had finished singing the tune. Inspired by the moment, he walked back over to the side of the stage and acknowledged the Captain and crew as they in turn saluted him. It was just one of many powerful moments on display this evening.
Throughout the night, Taylor made sure to give this crowd what they had come to the amphitheater to hear - his catalogue of hits. Of the 25 songs performed this evening, nine of the tunes could be found on his epic 1976 Greatest Hits album. Those included, among others, "You've Got a Friend" "Fire and Rain," "Shower the People," "Sweet Baby James" and "Country Road." Truth be told, everything Taylor sang was a hit with this crowd, that's how much love was in the air for this legendary performer.
Though he stuck primarily to his acoustic guitar, Taylor did switch to his electric Fender Stratocaster for "Steamroller Blues." This funked-up hit took on a life of its own with his 11-member band supplying the punch. The group included Dean Parks on guitar and pedal-steel guitar; Lou Marini, ( known as "Blue Lou" from the original "Saturday Night Live" Blues Brothers band) on sax and flute; Larry Goldings keyboards; Luis Conte on percussion and long-time friend and drummer Steve Gadd. The backing singers included David Lasley, Jim Gilstrap, Kate Markowitz and Zonn. The presence of this powerhouse ensemble had the singer more than once declaring, "This is the best band I have ever assembled."
The concert was divided into two sets. The first half of the show ended with "Sun on the Moon" from his 1988 platinum disc, Never Die Young. After the band took a twenty minute recess, they returned to perform ten more songs including fan favorites "One Man Parade," "Lighthouse," "Mexico," " Secret o' Life," and "Your Smiling Face." Reaching back to his 2008 Grammy nominated album James Taylor Classics, the wandering minstrel left the comfort zone of his guitar to pick up a harmonica for his rendition of the Junior Wells blues/soul classic, "(I'm a) Road Runner." It was the second composition JT performed this evening created by the legendary Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. The other - "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" - which ended the evening's festivities.
The Cleveland audience repeatedly rewarded several songs with standing ovations. The final tune of "How Sweet It Is" really brought the house down. People were singing in their seats and dancing in the aisles. The tune was highlighted by the extended sax solo of ‘Blue Lou.' Thanking the audience, the entourage exited the stage only to reappear seconds later. They returned for a 3-song encore that included two songs, "You've Got a Friend" and "You Can Close Your Eyes" from his aforementioned Mud Slide Slim. As the band linked arms and exited the stage, you would have thought the evening was over. Wrong! The ever gracious band leader returned to sign autographs for the throngs of people that assembled in front of the stage. Presenteed with old album covers, concert shirts, photos and other JT items, he placed his signature on them all. The only thing that crossed my mind watching this incredible event unfold was how much of a class act James Taylor truly is, and what an honor it had been to attend this show.
Perhaps this concert was best summed up by the experience described to me by a woman sitting in a wheelchair. As we chatted after the show, she went into detail explaining how the music of James Taylor helped pull her life back together after being told she'd be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She said, "It may be just songs to some people, but to me it's like having James Taylor reach down and lift me up." She then went on to repeat a line from the second song performed this evening, "That's Why I'm Here", that summed up the JT experience for many this night. "Person to person and man to man / I'm back in touch with my long lost friend."
Tonight's audience was made up of a generation of kids who grew up out of the teenage rages brought on by the Vietnam War. James Taylor's music struck a chord with that counter culture crowd back then that bonded both for a lifetime. He almost single-handily crafted the soft-rock music category in the ‘70s, and in essence never grew out of the movement he helped pioneer. That was just fine with his fans who all have aged just as gracefully with time as there hero. There was no stronger evidence of this ‘friendship' tonight than the sincere smile that graced Taylor's face as he graciously took pictures and signed his name on cherished memorabilia brought forth by a legion of admirers. Back in touch with a long lost friend indeed!
Hey Mister, That's Me up on the Jukebox
That's Why I'm Here
Carolina in My Mind
The Frozen Man
Little More Time with You
Sweet Baby James
Fire and Rain
Sun on the Moon
One Man Parade
Anywhere like Heaven
(I'm a) Road Runner
Secret o' Life
Your Smiling Face
Shower the People
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)
You've Got a Friend
You Can Close Your Eyes