BALTIMORESUN.COM — James Taylor shares stories behind the hits at Royal Farms Arena
By Wesley Case
Ten minutes after 8 p.m. on Tuesday, James Taylor — the 66-year-old singer-songwriter from Chapel Hill, N.C. — took the Royal Farms Arena stage, picked up an acoustic guitar and, without acknowledging the crowd, began plucking the opening notes to his 1968 song, “Something in the Way She Moves.”
Starting on such a recognizable note left the crowd of mostly Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers in Taylor’s possession for the rest of his predictably enjoyable 150-minute set. The obvious should still be stated here: Since his 1968 self-titled debut album, Taylor has written and sung many hits that go down as smoothly as his trademark vocal delivery. Some are introspective and timelessly resonant and others are observant and humorous, but nearly all are easy to digest in Taylor’s hands.
Dressed in a blue plaid shirt tucked into jeans, Taylor was a jovial professional all night. In between songs, he made jokes at his expense (early on, he thanked the crowd for coming out on a Wednesday, and after they corrected his mistake, Taylor replied, “Tuesday? Changes everything,” to laughs). When he described his songs’ themes as “tree-hugger,” the audience was surprised and delighted by the singer’s self-deprecating candor.
When playing resumed, it was precise and clean, thanks to a 10-piece backing band that Taylor endlessly praised throughout the night. The players’ deftness matched his, and the results sounded like veteran studio musicians jamming together effortlessly. Whether it was a new song like the country-standard twanged “Today, Today, Today” or a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” or the old bar-band parody “Steamroller Blues,” Taylor and his backing musicians delivered what those in the crowd seemed to hope and expect.
The dynamic of Taylor’s loose stage banter and the music’s surgically precise execution gave the night a “Storytellers” feel. Taylor knows his catalog resonates deeply with his fans, so concerts like this allow him to tell the stories behind the songs. He lamented the 1978 Broadway failure he wrote “Millworker” for (“The show was called ‘Working,’ even though it didn’t,” he quipped), told the origin story of the crowd favorite “Sweet Baby James” (it was a “cowboy lullaby” dedicated to his nephew) and admitted he stole “everything I could wrap my head around” from The Beatles, who gave Taylor his first record deal.
He was willing to show different shades of music. The relatively more aggressive “Handy Man” evoked giggles from women, while the soft-rock party song “Mexico” brought people to their feet. But it was the slow burners, like “Copperline” and the homesick “Carolina in My Mind,” that left the strongest impressions. Taylor, throughout it all, was charming.
Some in the crowd could have learned from Taylor. The majority was politely enthusiastic, but the quiet, coffeeshop-performance-in-an-arena vibe allowed some crowd members to yell at the singer between songs. Throughout the night, these impatient jokesters could not resist shouting, “I love you, James” (cute at first, but not really) and song titles that were obviously coming (this, in particular, became dreadfully obnoxious). It felt like an intrusion on intimacy.
Would Taylor play “Country Road”? Of course. But certain crowd members, likely amused and excited by the potential to be acknowledged by Taylor, still felt it necessary to yell the title out multiple times like “Freebird.” Taylor was a good sport; after another “Country Road” request early in the night, he picked up the setlist, pointed to the song and said, “Why yes, you named it.” It did not seem like a coincidence that Taylor took less time between songs in the second set. The message, I hope, was “please stop doing this.” If it wasn’t, it was warranted anyway.
These quibbles did not seem to affect the crowd’s mood at all. During the encore performance of “How Sweet It Is (to be Loved by You),” folks were standing and swaying to the feel-good anthem. Near the front of the stage, a cane could be seen pumping up and down in the air, which seemed to capture the night in a single image. On Tuesday night, Taylor consistently justified the reaction.