STARTRIBUNE.COM — James Taylor is as comfy as an old flannel shirt
By Jon Bream
James Taylor gives you the warm fuzzies.
When you need a friend, a hug or any kind of uplift, put on a James Taylor record or go to one of his concerts.
If you were one of the 10,000-plus baby boomers at Xcel Energy Center Sunday night, you might have found Taylor’s two-set, 2 1/4-hour performance to be as comforting as an old flannel shirt — one with holes in the elbow but with an unmistakably homey feel.
The 66-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer dresses up that flannel shirt with clean bluejeans, a wrinkled sport jacket and eventually a newsboy cap. Or, to put it in showbiz terms, he offered some quick-on-his-feet humor, several back stories about old songs and a trio of new songs.
Let’s address the new songs since Taylor hasn’t released a studio album of original material since 2002’s “October Road.” The new numbers seemed disparate musically, with “Today, Today, Today” finding Taylor at his twangiest musically and his most sing-songy lyrically. “Stretch of Highway,” which opened the second set, was a sleepy minor key ode to traveling; the most interesting aspect was how the female vocal harmonies suggested Steely Dan.
“You and I Again,” easily the best of the new tunes, was a piano ballad about long love, with a sophistication that suggested an art-song rather than another singalong JT love ballad. Taylor didn’t say if and when he’d deliver a new album.
That’s OK because the quintessential ’70s singer-songwriter trades on nostalgia and that’s what the crowd came for in what was actually Taylor’s first solo headline concert in a Twin Cities arena since 2001. His last time through town in 2010, he shared the stage with Carole King, his old pal, in a show that was neither polished nor overly collaborative.
Working with seven musicians and three backup singers, Taylor elevated such favorites as “Something In the Way She Moves” and “Carolina on My Mind” by telling back stories about them. The former he played in front of Paul McCartney and George Harrison when he auditioned for his contract with Apple Records; the latter was written because he was homesick while living in Europe.
“Sweet Baby James” would have been as gorgeous as ever (it earned the night’s first standing ovation) even if JT hadn’t explained that it born nephew James, the first of the next generation in the Taylor family. Other special moments were “Fire and Rain,” his elegant expression of yearning and determination (that received another standing ovation); “Country Road” with some funky vocal riffing (and JT showing a lot of excitement, for him), and his reading of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” which was more soulful and swinging than Taylor’s recorded version and featured a hot saxophone solo by Lou Marini of Blues Brothers fame.
Backup singers Arnold McCuller, Andrea Zonn and Kate Markowitz added elegant harmonies to “You’ve Got a Friend” and the finale, an old Scottish folk tune “Wild Mountain Thyme.”
Guitarist Mike Landau delivered some fiery licks during “Steamroller Blues,” a jaunty workout featuring humorously affected vocals by Taylor, who seemed to be channeling an old bluesman missing some teeth. That playfulness was part of JT’s appeal all night long.
He made self-deprecating mockery of his lyrics for “One More Go Round,” underscoring the point by projecting them on a big screen (he rhymes wine with 69) but saying he keeps playing the tune because he digs its groove.
He even made light of the acoustic guitar he was playing. It was made for him by James Olson, a Twin Cities guitarmaker. Taylor came to Minneapolis once to play a benefit concert and he found the guitar sitting on his hotel bed. “Welcome home, little fellow,” JT said to his guitar Sunday. “Don’t get used to it.”
No, that guitar needs to travel so Taylor can soothe baby boomers elsewhere with his warm, fuzzy songs.