December 17, 2021 | « back

LOCALSPINS.COM — James Taylor and Jackson Browne ‘Shower the People’ with nostalgic charm in Grand Rapids

By John Sinkevics

Friday’s tour stop at Van Andel Arena delivered a career-spanning trove of familiar hits by a pair of acclaimed singer-songwriters who still wield spellbinding appeal for longtime fans.

At 73, both James Taylor and Jackson Browne have enjoyed illustrious music careers spanning more than a half-century, with a robust catalog of songs that helped propel folk-rock to new heights starting in the 1970s.

Indeed, they literally defined the term “singer-songwriter,” from “Fire and Rain” and “Doctor, My Eyes” to “Running on Empty” and “Shower the People.”

So pairing these legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Famers on tour makes perfect sense, a no-brainer combination especially attractive to baby boomers reared on these familiar voices who once were a staple on radio.

And speaking of voices, Friday’s tour stop at Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena proved that these two icons still have plenty to offer fans – especially when backed by exemplary musicians and harmony vocalists.

Indeed, a good part of Browne and band’s opening one-hour-and-11-minute set sounded like it could have been performed three decades ago, with Browne’s impressive vocals and guitarist Mason Stoops’ searing leads gracing the enduring gems “Somebody’s Baby” and “Doctor My Eyes.”

Of course, Browne also took time to showcase his most recent material, especially politically and environmentally conscious songs from his 2021 album “Downhill from Everywhere,” including the title track, “The Dreamer” and “Until Justice is Real.”

But the tried-and-true memory-lane offerings not surprisingly got the most enthusiastic reaction from fans, with Taylor joining Browne for a duet on “The Pretender” and singing backing vocals for “Running on Empty” to close out the opening set.

“I’m so grateful to play live right now. It’s a gift to us,” Browne told fans, adding that he was honored to join Taylor on his U.S. tour. “He’s one of my all-time favorite songwriters. His songs have always meant so much to me.”

Clearly, the same was true for the near-capacity crowd at Van Andel Arena. Fans greeted Taylor — a teller of engaging tales — with the sort of warmth reserved for a favorite uncle at the holidays, which is not surprising, considering most of them had grown up listening to one of the kings of soft rock.

It was also clear from the opening renditions of “Country Road” and “Copperline,” and a resplendent take on “Mexico” a couple of song later, that Taylor’s all-star band was just that: a tight, well-oiled 12-piece machine complete with a horn section and five backing vocalists (including Taylor’s son, Henry).

Friday’s tour stop came just a day after news that longtime Taylor backing singer David Lasley had passed away at age 74 after a long illness. The Michigan native who grew up on a farm about 100 miles north of Grand Rapids –

Taylor acknowledged the singer near the end of the main set, noting that some of Lasley’s family members were at the show.

“We lost a really close friend last night,” said Taylor, who pointed out that Lasley had performed with the band since the mid-1970s (and played numerous Michigan tour stops over the years).“We want to remember David Lasley – a great, great singer and a great artist.”

Later, during the encore, Browne joined Taylor’s band to perform a crowd-involving version of The Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” a song Browne co-wrote with another late Michigan native, Glenn Frey.

“Sing it so Glenn can hear you,” Browne said. Added Taylor: “David, too.”

Poignant, nostalgic moments peppered the evening, from Taylor’s touching rendering of the 1970 classics “Sweet Baby James” and “Fire and Rain” to the chorally captivating “Carolina on My Mind” and gospel-tinged “Shower the People,” which also served as an uplifting tribute to Lasley.

And while on the subject of 1970, one of the evening’s bona fide highlights came during the set’s only blues number, “Steamroller Blues,” which first appeared on 1970’s “Sweet Baby James.”

Augmented by soulful trumpet and organ lines, Taylor unleashed the ditty in humorous, theatrical and rollicking fashion, earning a standing ovation midway through the show.

Through it all, artful, inventive and colorful images adorned the backdrop behind the band, adding to the songs’ storylines (even if the projections of the live performers themselves seemed strangely out-of-sync).

At the end of the night, the tightly knit circle of singers unfurled Carole King’s iconic “You’ve Got a Friend” with concertgoers joining in on every word.

It left little doubt that the timeless songs themselves helped carry the evening – channeled by a pair of charming, genial artists who still have a lot to say.