BOSTONGLOBE.COM – For James Taylor, Fenway the ‘ultimate hometown’ show
By James Reed
It’s two hours until showtime, and James Taylor is finally sitting still in his dressing room at Fenway Park on Thursday afternoon. It’s already been a nonstop day with sound checks and meet-and-greets, there’s probably no time for a nap, and he’s wondering how the concert will go.
This will be a big night for him: A native son is, at long last, headlining one of Boston’s most hallowed venues — the place that inspired “Angels of Fenway,” a song from his new album, “Before This World.” The concert, with Bonnie Raitt sharing the bill, sold out in a matter of hours. But he’s not nervous, necessarily.
“It’s just that it’s one of these ultimate hometown shows,” Taylor says. “Everybody but my mom is going to be here from my family.
“It’s funny,” he explains. “It’s hard to play stadiums with music that is as intimate as mine is. There’s a tendency to make everything big. And I think we’re just going to depend on having a great sound system and the video projections. I don’t really have any way to play to . . . what is the capacity here?”
“Yeah, to 35,000 people,” Taylor says. “The largest audience that I can sort of feel like I’m relating to is about 5,000. I often play to 10,000 and 15,000, but it’s like anything over 5,000 is the same. There’s not another quantum level for me to approach. But we’ll see how it goes in this large of a place.”
That’s James Taylor for you. At 67, he’s one of the most beloved and influential singer-songwriters of all time — and still eager to please and connect with an audience that has stuck with him since the late 1960s.
On Thursday, Taylor agreed to let a Globe reporter and photographer shadow him and his entourage for the afternoon before taking the stage.
First up is sound check, with the full band running through classics such as “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” and “Steamroller” and “Shed a Little Light,” an underappreciated hymn from 1991’s “New Moon Shine.”
Around 2 p.m., Raitt emerges from stage left, her thick mane of flame-red locks blowing in the breeze as she hugs everyone in the band. “Man, this is pretty historic,” she announces, surveying the blue skies and vast rows of seating.
She and Taylor have decided to do a few numbers together, and this is their first rehearsal. “Knock on Wood” sounds terrific, funky in a way that’s more attuned to her style than his.
During her own sound check later, she’s not too shy to correct Taylor when he flubs a line of “Thing Called Love.” “You need to change it to, ‘you ain’t no Princess Charming,’ ” she reminds him and he nods and writes it down on the lyric sheet. “That was really great,” she raves when they finally nail it on the second try.
Back on her tour bus, Raitt admits Taylor was a big influence. “When James came on the scene, it was a whole different game,” Raitt says. “He is a unique avatar for the singer-songwriter. We all fell in love with him, too. I won’t lie: We all thought he was dreamy . . .”
After the sound check, it’s time to meet the smattering of people who have filled a few rows in the otherwise empty ballpark. Most of them are survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings, including Jeff Bauman, who lost both his legs and was heralded as a hero who identified one of the bombing suspects.
The bombing struck a deep nerve with Taylor; he was one of the first big acts to sign on for the Boston Strong benefit concert that raised money for the One Fund in 2013. He has since fostered a relationship with some of the survivors, corresponding through e-mail and sometimes at his concerts.
With his wife, Kim, by his side, Taylor navigates the crowd slowly, determined to give as many hugs and hear as many stories as possible. Celeste Corcoran of Lowell is looking him straight in the eye as she points to her two prosthetic legs. She’s getting better, she says, and he listens in between signing hats and posters.
Talking to Kim a few minutes later, Corcoran expresses her gratitude.
“It might seem like a little gesture, but it’s huge. We appreciate it, and we love you guys,” Corcoran tells Kim, who starts to tear up as she pulls away from an embrace.
Next up is a presentation from the top brass at the Red Sox and Live Nation, the show’s promoter. Don Law gives Taylor a mounted home plate — “That’s a real home plate, not the kind you can buy at Dick’s Sporting Goods,” Law says — along with a framed photo of the scoreboard with the names of Taylor and Raitt.
These days, touring is a family affair for Taylor. Kim, whose warm demeanor suggests she’s never met a stranger, is one of his backup singers. Henry, one of his two young twin sons, has also sung backing vocals for his father. And brother Livingston Taylor shows up at Fenway with a guitar in a soft case on his back, offering a hearty “Hey, guys!” before hugging his sibling.
Taylor credits his wife for his connection to Fenway. Although he grew up in Massachusetts, he didn’t start coming to games regularly until around 1996. At the time, Kim was working for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose music director, Seiji Ozawa, was a huge Sox fan — and still is, Taylor reports.
“When the curse of the Bambino was relieved in 2004, I knew I wanted to write about it,” he says, adding that he wrote “Angels of Fenway” before he had booked his performance at the ballpark. “I had never written a song about baseball, and I actually don’t write many songs that I set out to write. Usually I’m just following the song.
“My dad says he brought us to Fenway when we were really little,” he says. “We left Boston for North Carolina when I was 3. So I have this sense that he took us to a game just before we left town — but I can’t remember it at all. But I’m pretty sure I’ll always remember tonight.”