James Taylor began his show at First Niagara Center on Tuesday with an old story.
Taylor recounted a day in 1968 when he “sat in a tiny room in London with three people in it, singing this song, and one of them was me, and the other two were Paul McCartney and George Harrison.” The song was “Something in the Way She Moves,” a gorgeous, elegant, evocative and eloquent ballad with a country-folk lilt. That 1968 performance got Taylor signed to the Beatles’ then-fledgling Apple label, and launched his career. On Tuesday, it brought a roar of fond remembrance and approval from the FNC crowd – a mostly full house, save the uppermost reaches of the arena, and one viscerally eager to relive those moments in their lives that, one guesses, are forever tied to Taylor’s songs.
It’s easy to see what McCartney and Harrison – who, defnitely knew a thing or two about songwriting – saw in the then young, long-haired, and doubtless mildly glassy-eyed Taylor. He was then and remains today a songwriter bereft of gimmick, unheeding of trend, and completely empty of ironic distance. In short, he is the classic balladeer, the folk-poet, and the endlessly charismatic troubadour.
He’s also a man with quite the catalog, and he simultaneously shared and celebrated that catalog at FNC, throwing in the odd well-received new tune for good measure, and keeping the evening moving with breezy between-song repartee and self-deprecating humor.
Taylor billed his show as “James Taylor and his All-Star Band,” and he was not gilding the lily even slightly by doing so. Joining him on stage were a host of the finest jazz, rock, pop and R&B players alive, among them Rochester native – and Paul Simon/Steely Dan and countless others sideman – Steve Gadd; jazz, rock and session player supreme Michael Landau on guitar; veteran jazz and pop bassist Jimmy Johnson; former Frank Zappa collaborator Walt Fowler on trumpet; and jazz pianist Larry Goldings, in addition to a three-piece vocal section. The sound this ensemble conjured was perfectly balanced, lovingly mixed, and stuffed with subtly virtuosic beauty.
Taylor has more than enough hits to fill a show – even a twin-set one like Tuesday’s. He was not stingy with his most beloved songs, nor did he appear to be in any way bored with them, despite the fact that he is expected to play them every single time he performs. Subtle shifts in arrangement helped to keep tunes like “Copperline,” “Country Road” and “You’ve Got A Friend” fresh for both band member and listener alike. Taylor was in incredibly fine voice – occasionally displaying a slight thinning of tone in the uppermost registers, but generally, killing it, tune after tune.
There were moments throughout the set that struck one as incredibly poignant, principal among them the first set take on “Carolina In My Mind,” which Taylor prefaced with another reference to that 1968 trip, when he was far from home for the first time in his life, and trying to wrap his head around the fact that the Beatles had just signed him to a record deal, thereby changing his life forever. The song’s beautiful cadences and subtly poetic lyrics conspired to create a transcendent moment of singer-songwriter mastery.
Similarly, a smartly reworked take on Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” a lilting “Sweet Baby James,” and an impossible to resist interpretation of Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” managed to tread lightly in that fragile area where nostalgia and timeless songwriting coexist.
Set two kicked off with “Stretch of the Highway,” moved into “You and I” – which boasted an intro where Taylor conducted violinist Andrea Zahn and Fowler through a beautiful rubato prelude – and settled with mildly swanky confidence into Taylor’s version of the Jimmy Jones tune “Handy Man.”
Taylor’s music might seem, to some, to be completely lacking in edge. However, that lack of attitude, that absence of pretension, allows the listener to focus on the beauty of the whole mosaic, which is colored by sparse but deeply musical contributions from all of the players.
Landau’s volume pedal swells, for example, suggested a marriage of old school country and folk-tinged jazz, while Gadd’s gluey and deeply commanding sense of time created the deepest of pockets for Taylor and Johnson to work within. One needn’t have focused on any of this, but it was there, if one chose to do so.
I’m far from the first writer to cap a review with the assessment that James Taylor is a class act and a writer of songs with timeless appeal. Surely, I won’t be the last, either.