It would take some serious effort not to love James Taylor. Since being sniffed out and ultimately signed by the Beatles way back when the world was Fab, he's been offering up a steady stream of songs that offer allegiance to no particular idiom, but cut across generational lines to affect anyone with a pair of ears and a heart. Like the Beatles themselves, Taylor is an artist who has been able to reach listeners simply through the generosity of his own musical spirit.
Tuesday, Taylor and his wonderful band played before a sold-out Kleinhans Music Hall. With humor, good will and serious musicianship, the man and his band offered their wares. The assembled accepted them, with what, for a James Taylor concert at Kleinhans, will have to pass for vigor. At any rate, everyone seemed to love it.
Taylor was recently feted with a star turn at Carnegie Hall in New York City, but he showed up in Buffalo with no airs. As has always been the case with this man, there was in Kleinhans an air of shared appreciation. Taylor seemed still pleasantly surprised that this many people want to hear him sing his at-once deeply personal but universally appealing songs. The assembled seemed pleased that the man had bothered to include Buffalo in his tour plans. Which may explain why tickets for Tuesday's show sold out a mere few hours into their on-sale date.
Much has been made over the years of the idea that Taylor is somehow emblematic of "American song." Since I have no idea what that actually might be -- Is it jazz? The blues? Punk? Motown? Country? Metallica? I dunno! -- I'll avoid such proclamations. What Taylor did Tuesday was prove that with a certain amount of virtuosity, an open heart and a knack for language that is both folk based and decidedly intellectual, one can win the heart of a listener.
Taylor joked Tuesday that he has "written only 15 different songs, then rewritten them 100 times," but his typically self-effacing humor can't hide the impact of tunes like "Carolina in My Mind," "Country Road," "Copperline," "Something in the Way She Moves," and "Fire and Rain." These are pieces of our shared popular culture over the past 40 years. And unlike so many songs that work their way into the fabric of our times, these deserve to be there. They are simple, eloquent, beautifully played and eloquently observed slices of life.
Taylor was in fine and firm voice Tuesday, and as always, his finger-picked acoustic guitar drove the band. But he had help, it should be noted, principally from drummer Chad Wackerman, late of the bands of Frank Zappa and Alan Holdsworth, among others.
Wackerman brought a decidedly jazzy take to Taylor's songs, and with percussionist Luis Conte, polyrhythms were delivered as "no big deal" and top-level musicianship parlayed as if it was not a big deal. It was, though, particularly when guitarist Michael Landau, bassist Jimmy Johnson, a four-piece vocal "choir" and a horn section that included another Zappa vet in the form of trumpeter Walt Fowler joined in.
Taylor makes it all seem so easy and natural, as if anyone could do it. But "anyone" can't.
Two sets, with all the hits, all the album cuts we've come to accept as "shoulda been hits," and a few surprises. A typically outstanding James Taylor concert, then.
James TaylorSold-out concert Tuesday evening in Kleinhans Music Hall.