June 6, 2016 | « back

MANKATOFREEPRESS.COM — James Taylor charms his way through 2-plus hours of happy music making

By Robb Murray

In his trademark brown ascot hat, plaid shirt and brown pants, James Taylor walked onto the stage very much the man everyone expected to see. And after sitting down on a stool, strumming a few chords on his guitar and belting out a few notes with his familiar baritone, he struck a grandfatherly presence; a man who who stood in good company with the largely grayish crowd that clearly adored him.

But when Taylor walked off that stage — still wearing that ascot, although he’d ditched it momentarily at one point for an audience member’s Twins cap — he’d probably surprised a few folks.

At 68, Taylor is at an age where most would have forgive him for missing a guitar note or maybe singing around some of the more vocally challenging passages in his songs. But Taylor missed nothing (as far as I can tell). What’s more, his charmingly humble demeanor made you wonder if he hailed from southern Minnesota instead of North Carolina.

“I was excited to come here,” Taylor said. “One of my favorite characters in all of fiction lives here: Virgil Flowers.”

Audience applause suggested many were familiar with the works of John Sandford (I am not — I had to Google it. I mean, I’ve heard of John Sandford. I think I even started one of his books. Something about prey? But I didn’t know Virgil Flowers. Anyway …)

The front end of the show was loaded with Taylor’s newer material, a fact for which he apologized: “I think we’ll do some new tunes,” he said. “We’ll try to get them over with quickly. Like pulling off a Band-Aid. … The good news is the news ones sound just like the old ones.”

And he was right. If all you knew of Taylor was the hits, and then you heard a song such as “Montana,” you might say to yourself, “Mmmm … Do I know that song?” Its beautiful melody and soulful warmth feel right at home with the hits that would come later.

The first hint at the hits sprinkled through his career was “Country Road.” At the sound of something familiar, the bulk of the crowd grew visibly animated. (I mean, let’s face it — new stuff is great, it keeps artists creative, keeps them getting up in the morning, and even the legendary songs that massive crowds sing in unison at one time spent time being the new song no one wanted to hear. When fans come together, they want those touchpoints, those reasons they became fans in the first place. Which is why a beautiful new song like “Montana” plays to a largely placid crowd while “Country Road” concludes inaudibly because of the roar of the fans — many of whom have had their tickets for MONTHS — who are dying for a hit.)

“I Was a Fool to Care” followed, then “Down on Copperline.” “Carolina on my Mind” was followed by “Sun on the Moon.”

Mid-show — and pre-intermission — Taylor dropped what might be the most soulful version of “Fire and Rain” I’ve ever heard. This is his musical icon, the song he’s probably played more than any other, the song that will forever be the people associate with his career. Still, when he played it in little Mankato to a crowd that I guarantee you loved him more than the previous few crowds combined, he did so in a way that shined with sincerity. A lot of artists play songs over and over again for years, sometimes decades, and they do a good job of making it look like their heart is still in the game. Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” last night felt like he was genuinely and sincerely singing from his heart. Which, considering it’s a song about a friend’s suicide, maybe he was, and does so every time he plays it.

At intermission, while the band went backstage for 20 minutes, Taylor greeted folks in the front rows. He stayed there for the entire intermission signing shirts, shaking hands, posing for pictures. Only when the band returned and started beckoning him with background music did he relent, pick up his guitar and dive into the second set.

“Up on the Roof” and “You’ve got a Friend” were followed by Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” and “Shower the People,” a song that prompted another standing ovation.

SIDENOTE ABOUT “SHOWER THE PEOPLE”: I witnessed an unfortunate bit of poor concert etiquette during this song that needs to be addressed. A woman arrived mid-song with a pair of drinks and tried to return to her seat in the row behind me, but she was thwarted by an irritated/obstinate woman. “Wait ’til the song is over please.” Befuddled, the drink-holding woman said, “What?” “Wait ’til the song is over.” So the woman sat on the aisle steps and waited three minutes or so for Taylor to finish, then was allowed to return to her seat. ISSUE 1: Your need to get a rum and Coke is less important than the right of someone who paid $120 to see the show. Now, having said that, ISSUE 2: The audacity of someone who refuses to allow a fellow paying customer access to a seat she paid for is, quite simply, ridiculous. No song at any show by any artist is so good that it justifies this type of juvenile behavior. In the time it took you to refuse this woman access to her seat, you could have just let her walk by. Aren’t we all at the same concert? All trying to appreciate artistry? Is this really the time to let your disdain for people who “bug” you show? Are you really that petty? OK, RANT OVER.

“Fenway,” — which prompted a Red Sox fan to offer his cap, which was followed by a Twins fan donating his — was followed by “Jolly Springtime” and “Sweet Baby James,” “Steamroller,” “Mexico,” “Your Smiling Face,” and others.

Throughout, Taylor’s willingness to talk to the crowd was charming and delightful. And the crowd upon his exit, as they’d done five times prior, rose in thunderous applause to show their appreciation.

Taylor left the crowd of 6,000-7,000 pleased. But he wasn’t done pleasing people.

After everyone had gone, after he’d sent then on their way to hum “Fire and Rain” on their car rides home, Taylor remained at the Verizon Wireless Center.

Marketing Director Eric Jones said: “James was one of the last people to leave the building last night. He had asked one of our staff if he could use our washer and dryer to do a load of laundry. As in, James Taylor, doing his own laundry, in a back room in the Verizon Center, at 1 a.m., after performing a sold out show. A kinder, sweeter, more down to earth icon you will not meet.”