November 6, 2014 | « back

JSONLINE.COM — James Taylor offers a relaxed refuge at the BMO Harris Bradley Center

By Piet Levy

It was an interesting coincidence that James Taylor played the BMO Harris Bradley Center on election night Tuesday.

While the 66-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is a card-carrying Democrat, his soothing, introspective songs in the ’70s provided escape from the tumultuous decade prior and the politically charged folk it inspired — and consequentially paved the path for a lifelong career.

And once again on Tuesday, following a final day of political bombardment, Taylor, backed by his 11-piece All-Star Band, offered relaxed refuge.

Make that very relaxed refuge. When Taylor tried to encourage fans to clap along for the lovefest “Shower the People,” the 5,000 to 8,000 in attendance at most mustered what could be described as slightly excitable, synchronized golf claps. Taylor’s “rock star” gestures for the first of two sets spanned from seated shoulder sways for a sepia-toned “Copperline” (Taylor was on a stool much of the night) to a pseudo-leap at the end of an intentionally bumping “Country Road.”

Yet as polite as the presentation was, at times, it felt excessive.

“Millworker” for instance — Taylor’s contribution to the musical “Working” based on Studs Terkel’s book — is a quietly heartbreaking tale of a woman who will spend the rest of her days as a living tool in a factory. But, live, Lou Marini’s pennywhistle and Stephen Gadd’s rolling snare turned the song into a sappy tear-jerker. “Fire and Rain” was thankfully restrained, the big band whittled down to a handful of members, but it might have been a stronger moment if Taylor had gone solo. (Unfortunately, he never opted for such intimacy across the 24 songs, played across two sets over two-and-a-half hours.)

And the video screens and glittering lights — while modest by most arena-show standards — clashed with the mood. The twinkling lights were far too flashy for “Lo and Behold,” which Taylor jokingly described as a “spiritual for agnostics.” “Handy Man” was accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek, out-of-place video montage of male beefcakes.

But between aw-shucks demeanor and thoughtful songs, Taylor brought a cozy, theater-like atmosphere that’s generally impossible to create in such a large room.

Speaking between nearly every song, he clearly emulated the personable stage presence of his idol Paul McCartney, the subject of a couple stories throughout the evening, including Taylor’s audition for the Beatles’ Apple Records in 1968, where he said he felt like a “chihuahua on amphetamines.” Taylor also shared the origins of songs like “Carolina in My Mind” and “Sweet Baby James” (the latter a “cowboy lullaby” written for Taylor’s infant nephew, who shared his first name), and in the evening’s funniest moment, expressed how he thought “One More Go Round” was “lyrically weak,” an opinion he said his wife has insisted he should keep to himself. The band played the song anyway — and the lyrics were projected on the stage for all to criticize, even though Taylor teasingly suggested that the audience not pay attention to the words.

And while mellow was generally the M.O., Taylor and the All-Star Band had a few high-energy moments. Taylor plugged into an electric guitar for “Steamroller” but thankfully let Marini, keyboardist Larry Goldings and electric guitarist Michael Landau seize the spotlight with back-to-back solos. And when the band brought a funky gospel vibe to Taylor’s signature cover of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” the synchronized clap-along from the crowd actually popped.