CLTAMPA.COM — James Taylor and Jackson Browne sail through breezy Tampa set at Amalie Arena
By Gabe Echazabal
What happens when a pair of 73-year-old men walk into a hockey arena and take their places, front and center, to welcome a packed house? An audience gets the ability to revel in the rich song books each septuagenarian has to offer. And that’s exactly what occurred on Thursday night when soft-rock heavyweights James Taylor and Jackson Browne brought their package tour to Tampa’s Amalie Arena.
Based on the average age of those who filled nearly 8,300 seats for this double-bill, audience members have more than likely been buying records since these singer-songwriters made their initial musical impact many years ago. In true attestation of the timelessness of the music each performer brought to the stage, those who filled the seats enjoyed a night of familiar tunes, quips, anecdotes, and sheer entertainment from headliner Taylor and show opener Browne.
A prompt 7:30 p.m. kickoff allowed plenty of time for both singers to delve into substantial sets that highlighted their longevity in the music business. Browne’s once dark brown locks have been replaced with shades of gray and he now sports a whitish beard but, otherwise, his delivery shows no signs of age whatsoever. Launching his set with his catchy, poppy contribution to 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High film soundtrack, “Somebody’s Baby,” Browne instantly gave attendees, many still filing in at the time, a familiar nugget to get things started. Dressed in a simple denim jacket, button-up shirt and jeans, Browne resembled many of the guys who filled the seats of the arena. With the accompaniment of a full band backing him, Browne’s songs benefitted from fuller arrangements in contrast to the typical solo, acoustic performances he’s offered on his recent tours. Additionally, the two impressive backup singers that rounded out his group, Alethea Mills and Tiffany Cross, added plenty of rich, warm tones to Browne’s set. Still boasting strong pipes and recalling his smooth, earnest vocal stylings, Browne sailed through a 70-minute set that included plenty of familiar tunes and a few new selections from his most current release, 2021’s Downhill from Everywhere.
Switching between acoustic and electric guitars, Browne navigated with ease and added some spoken interludes between songs to greet and thank the audience for coming out to the show throughout his set. Most poignant was his lead-in for his 2017 single “The Dreamer”; discussing the plight of a friend of his who migrated to this country, Browne acknowledged those who come to America to start new lives in the States. The song—inspired by Dreamers, undocumented immigrants protected from potential deportation from America—finds Browne touching on political and human rights issues which both often surface throughout his songwriting. With verses sung entirely in Spanish, the song’s message of hope and opportunity was felt despite any language barrier.
On a lighter note, Browne joked about the romantic breakup that inspired him to write the gorgeous 1974 ballad “Fountain of Sorrow” while sitting at a baby grand piano to play it. His jaunty take on his very first hit single, “Doctor My Eyes,” drew raucous applause from the audience and was extended to include some tasty electric guitar work courtesy of longtime veteran musician Val McCallum. However, it was the appearance of the night’s headliner during the opening set that drew the heartiest response.
“Say good evening to James Taylor!” Browne announced as the main act entered the stage to join Browne’s sturdy band. Sporting his familiar newsboy cap, a blazer and blue jeans, Taylor took his place centerstage with his opener. Both singers then traded lines and harmonized together for “The Pretender,” one of Browne’s best-known and most beloved songs. To close his set before thanking the audience for arriving early enough to hear him play, Browne relied on his signature song, “Running on Empty”, to get the audience to its feet and to sing along with him. Still onstage for the final number, Taylor this time took residence behind Browne to add backing vocals to the familiar choruses of the song.
A short break used to overhaul the barren stage set Jackson played in front of brought a large, faux oak tree with an assortment of light bulbs hanging from it as part of the décor. Opening with a video montage of fans singing and delivering their renditions of some of his classics, Taylor soon after reappeared on stage to start his headlining set. Boasting a large band that included fiddle player and backup singer Andrea Zonn and legendary drummer Steve Gadd, Taylor dove headfirst into familiar territory with “County Road,” a single from his breakthrough 1970 album, Sweet Baby James to start his 100-minute set. While starting out sounding a bit thin and frail in the vocal department, it wouldn’t be long before Taylor would fall into his more recognizable, signature vocal tone and timbre.
In brutal honesty while discussing the perils of addiction, Taylor recalled his late friend and former “Saturday Night Live” star John Belushi and the role substance abuse played in his demise. Taking that event as a wakeup call, Taylor described that “pivot point” in his life as the catalyst for cleaning up his own act. As the hanging lights on stage dramatically changed colors and slowly bobbed, Taylor’s vocals were at full strength for this personal, poignant portion of the show.
Now joined by a total of five backing vocalists (including his 20-year-old son Henry), Taylor continued to remind audience members of his vast and fruitful catalog and of his dominance of radio airwaves throughout the 1970s. A sparkling, near-perfect version of “Mexico” soared thanks to the multi-layered harmonies his crew of vocalists laid on it.
Taylor’s wry wit and humor was evident throughout the evening, too. As audience members yelled out song requests, the singer, now perched on a stool at the foot of the stage, bent down to retrieve his jumbo-sized, handwritten setlist and held it up for all to see. “It’s coming up,” he announced, referring to the title the audience member had requested. “I’ll let you know” he continued and was met with a sea of laughter from the audience.
When mentioning his most current album, 2020’s American Standard, Taylor acknowledged that the record came out while COVID initially hit.
“It was like throwing an album down a well” he joked, referring to the effect a nationwide pandemic can have on the promotion and success of a new album. Nonetheless, he delivered an exquisite take on one of its tunes, “As Easy as Rolling Off a Log,” which has its origins as part of a 1930s Merrie Melodies cartoon. The bouncy jazz-swing tune brought a welcomed variant to the night’s mostly softer balladry and showcased Taylor’s expressive vocals brilliantly. A bonus was seeing scenes from the original cartoon reel beamed on the stage video screen as the song was played.
Breaking out his own arsenal of signature songs towards the end of his set, Taylor effortlessly poured out radio staples like “Fire and Rain,”
“Carolina in My Mind,” and his take on “How Sweet it Is (To Be Loved by You),” a song Marvin Gaye originally recorded, which Taylor turned into a monster hit in 1975. A montage of family photos flashed on the projection screens for that one which gave it a more personal feel.
Returning the favor, opener Jackson Browne joined the festivities for Taylor’s encore and the pair again traded lines and verses for a few numbers. This time, it was “Take it Easy,” a song popularized by The Eagles and one Browne co-wrote with late Eagles singer-guitarist, Glenn Frey, that the men duetted. A corny, ham-fisted (and obviously staged) ploy to play one more song followed. “I hope that looked spontaneous!” Taylor deadpanned before delivering an emotive version of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” on which Browne lent his backing vocals to round out the choruses.
To cap off the triumphant night, Taylor and his son sat, side by side, each playing a guitar, and dispatched a haunting, sparse version of “You Can Close Your Eyes,” one of the standout tracks from his 1971 album, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. Whether intentional or not, the move fittingly proved that Taylor’s music and sound is truly timeless and that a great song can transcend time and generational gaps brilliantly, a theory every one of his longtime fans would willingly agree.