ILLINOISENTERTAINER.COM — Stage Buzz: Live Review and Photo Gallery – James Taylor and His All-Star Band and Jackson Browne • United Center
The third time’s the charm. Originally scheduled for the summer of 2020, the long-anticipated tour by James Taylor and His All-Star Band featuring Jackson Browne’s opening set was bumped to June of this year by the pandemic. Opening night for this summit of songwriter’s songwriters finally arrived on Thursday at Chicago’s United Center. People on both sides of the stage were clearly relieved and in high spirits. “Thanks for hanging onto your tickets,” said Browne with a laugh. “We really didn’t know if anyone would show up,” said Taylor later in the evening.
Browne offered a concise, 60-minute overview of his nearly 50-year solo career. The singer led his nine-piece band on guitar for most of the set but borrowed bandmate Jason Crosby’s seat at the piano for early favorites including “Doctor My Eyes” and “Late for the Sky.” Fans offered fervent response to popular fare including “Somebody’s Baby” from 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High soundtrack.
Browne debuted a clutch of songs from his new album Downhill from Everywhere, which continue to find his accessible, mid-tempo rock spiked with progressive commentary. The title cut was a song for the ocean, citing its importance to life regardless of anyone’s ideological affiliation. The chugging roots-pop of protest anthem “Until Justice is Real” was grounded by bassist icon Bob Glaub. The song connected to the Laurel Canyon sounds and the roots of ‘70s Los Angeles folk-rock sound that Browne helped to construct. Browne traded vocals with lead guitarist Val McCallum during the vulnerable “My Cleveland Heart” while Greg Leisz underscored Browne’s signature sound on lap steel.
“I don’t open the show for just anybody,” said Browne later in his set. “This is an honor for me and everybody up here. To get to hear his songs every night, I’m in James Taylor camp.” Taylor then walked onstage with guitar in hand to join Browne’s band for a duet of “The Pretender” and its requiem for love and dreams traded in pursuit of money. The only overt opening-night flub occurred when Taylor sang a lyric too early. Browne gently chided, “No, we’re not there.” “Oh,” Taylor replied with a bashful grin before resuming at the right spot while Browne laughed it off. Taylor charmingly buried his face in his well-worn driver’s cap as the crowd cheered for him afterward.
The set concluded with “Running on Empty,” elevated by soulful vocalists Chavonne Stewart and Alethea Mills. Leisz traded euphoric lap steel licks with the towering McCallum, who stood hooked over his guitar like a vulture. Organist Jeff Young quoted the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’” mid-song. “’17, I was 69,” sang Browne, changing the familiar lyric about his ongoing life as a restless troubadour. His mop of gray hair and scruffy beard helped to give away his age, but underscored his veteran rock star style.
Taylor’s set began with a video montage that underscored how his enduring music has pulled people together through good times and bad. Many of the clips featured fans playing their versions of songs like “Fire and Rain” and the Carole King-penned “You’ve Got a Friend,” connecting to each other from their homes during lockdown.
Everything about the 17-song set was cozy. The stage was decorated with an old shade tree stretching from one corner into the rigging, its dangling leaves illuminated with multicolored lights. Taylor’s most inviting asset, however, remains a rich and even-tempered voice that is perfectly suited to his deceptively simple and hummable melodies.
After beginning the show with “Country Road” from 1970’s Sweet Baby James, the singer paused to look around the stage at the full house, taking it all in with gratitude. “It’s not the same without you,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
“Carolina in My Mind” from Taylor’s 1968 debut grew from a rich a capella section between the singer and his five-member choir, and blossomed into a blissed-out groove driven by drummer Steve Gadd. “He’s a bit of a legend,” said Taylor when introducing the veteran percussionist. The song’s nostalgia for home was echoed in “Copperline.” “It’s a song about the state I grew up in, as far up as I grew,” Taylor quipped.
Another legend with a special place in the hearts of the Chicago crowd was reeds player “Blue Lou” Marini, famous to many for his role as the taciturn saxophonist in The Blues Brothers film (and band). Marini’s biggest moment arrived with a celebratory saxophone solo during the swinging “How Sweet it Is (To Be Loved By You),” but he was a trusty fixture throughout the set playing gliding solos on songs like the drowsy and unhurried “Make It Easy.”
Taylor had a special introduction for one member of the cast, naming “a new addition to our chorus – my heart’s desire, my own son Henry Taylor.” The sense of extended family among the whole band was apparent by the ease and humor onstage, even when Taylor got cheeky. “I know you don’t care who they are,” wisecracked Taylor after naming and praising the musicians, “but you should see how they get if you don’t introduce ‘em.”
Some songs including the evocative acoustic staple “Fire and Rain” emphasized their essence, with minimal adornment as Taylor sat on a stool with his acoustic guitar under a lone spotlight. The affectionate “Shower the People” was restrained but lush, emphasizing the six singers. Other songs like the festive and joyful “Mexico” drew upon the full dynamic strength of Taylor’s 13-piece All-Star Band.
Taylor teased the audience about removing crowd-pleaser “Steamroller” from the set. “We understand that many of you have had enough of it,” he said to audience catcalls. The band then performed a rowdy medley of “Chili Dog” with an extended coda of “Steamroller.” “We are taking it out of the set, but we can’t do it all at once,” Taylor deadpanned afterward.
American Standard, Taylor’s 2020 album of guitar-based standards, was featured next. He introduced the album’s lone obscurity. “I learned it from where I learned everything in this life, from cartoons,” he said, citing “early television education.” The song “As Easy as Rolling Off a Log” was drawn from 1938 Merrie Melodie cartoon Katnip Kollege. The band rendered the song as a Dixieland jazz shuffle in sync with the cartoon on rear projection screens, featuring Marini’s clarinet.
Combination cowboy song, road song, and lullaby “Sweet Baby James” was played against visual scenes from Taylor’s pop-up children’s storybook by the same name.
“Never Die Young” was sung from the perspective of a hapless narrator watching a younger couple with the world at its feet. The song remains a mixture of melancholy and encouragement, but Taylor leaned upon the latter. “Never die young always seems like obvious advice, but good advice,” he said afterward.
Taylor encored with “Shed a Little Light” before bringing Browne back onstage (who in turn brought Taylor’s wife Kim) to join the All-Star Band. “This is from the pen of Jackson Browne,” said Taylor, introducing the Eagles’ first hit single “Take It Easy.” It was an energetic highlight and set list surprise. “I probably shouldn’t try to follow that,” said Taylor afterward with a laugh, settling in for a final song with the sentimental acoustic song “Secret o’ Life” from 1977’sJTalbum. Although some fans left the hall wondering how the house lights could come up without a performance of “You’ve Got a Friend,” it was the satisfying conclusion of a generous set and a welcome return for fans who had waited ages to bear witness.
– Live Review by Jeff Elbel; Photos; Photos by Philamonjaro (Phillip Solomonson)