October 8, 2014 | « back

FINANCIAL TIMES – James Taylor, Royal Albert Hall, London

By David Cheal

The singer took his audience on a journey down the highways and byways of a life in music.

Sweet-voiced, gentle, avuncular and twinkly, James Taylor is not the kind of pop star to set pulses soaring; rather, his music is soothing balm for the soul, often shot through with a dash of wistful regret, and augmented these days by an aura of wisdom that’s accentuated by the eagleish contours of his head.

And so on this, the first of two nights in London at the end of a UK tour, he took a packed Albert Hall down the highways and byways of his life in music, pausing to chat affably and wittily about the stories behind some of his songs (one he introduced endearingly as “hippie tree-hugging bullshit”). At 66, his years of heroin abuse well behind him, he is lean and fit and his mellifluous voice is in great shape while his band picked, plucked and tickled their instruments with admirable delicacy and restraint.

His quick wit came to the fore early in the show, after a tender “Lo and Behold”. “I love you, James,” shouted one punter, “but the sound is terrible. Take the reverb off!” Taylor, without missing a beat, replied, “Well, I hear you loud and clear.” The punter had a point, but it wasn’t anything to do with Taylor’s sound crew; it was simply that the Albert Hall is a devilishly tricky venue for amplified music, and in fact by its usual standards the sound at this show was of a pretty high standard.

What did come across with utmost clarity was the quintessentially American quality of Taylor’s music. It’s there in his lyrics, of course, but also in the timbre of those country-ish guitars, the Hammond organ, the brushed drums, the harmonies: the roads, the mountains and beaches, the land itself. This was most notable in a pitch-perfect rendition of his 1968 song “Carolina In My Mind”, written, he told us, during a bout of homesickness for his home state while he was recording at Trident Studios in London, where The Beatles were next door recording The White Album (they are the song’s “holy host of others standing around me”). Achingly lovely.

The show omitted none of the old Taylor favourites – “Sweet Baby James”, “You’ve Got a Friend”, “Fire and Rain”, etc – and also included a couple of impressive new tunes.
By the end, with the band chugging away, the audience had risen to their feet and were . . . well, not quite dancing, but jiggling gently.