July 22, 2014 | « back – James Taylor a friendly, comforting presence at PNC

By Tris McCall

‘It’s a perfectly adequate set in many ways,” said James Taylor to the crowd about the music he was about to play. This was Taylor the self-deprecating jokester, poking fun at the customary hyperbole that accompanies classic rock performance by dramatically underselling his concert, in language more appropriate for a schoolteacher or a carpenter.

Taylor, 66, who returned to PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, Thursday, for his near-annual summertime concert (he’ll also be in Camden on Tuesday), has never been boastful, and he hardly needs to play the salesman. He remains one of the most reliable entertainers in American popular music — a storyteller and sit-down strummer with a voice rich as Carolina soil. His voice is as expressive as it has ever been, and his cut-glass acoustic guitar patterns continue to sparkle. If the old master does not move around onstage as easily as he once did, a sedentary delivery suits the work of a writer who has always put the quest for composure and serenity at the heart of his songs.

Taylor’s music is renowned for its intimacy and modesty, yet he travels with a large group with an audacious handle. The 11-piece Band of Legends consists of accomplished session players with reputations for versatility — including drummer Steve Gadd, who has supported Paul Simon and Eric Clapton, and fast-gun guitarist Michael Landau, sideman for Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, Michael Jackson and other world-famous artists. Taylor’s two-piece horn section featured a Blues Brother (“Blue” Lou Marini) on woodwinds and an acclaimed fusion trumpeter (Walter Fowler) who doubled as an organist.

The concert could have degenerated into a skills exhibition. Instead, each musician acted as a colorist, adding nuance and depth to decades-old hits such as “Carolina on My Mind” and “Your Smiling Face.” It is meaningful that almost all of the players have roots deep in jazz, even if they didn’t always let that influence show. Their interpretations of Taylor’s hits were at once more relaxed and more ambitious than the ones frozen in perpetuity on lite radio. Bassist Jimmy Johnson gave the sly “Handy Man” a slinky groove; Gadd brought drama and intensity to “Fire and Rain” without calling attention to himself. When the band cleared space for percussionist Luis Conte to solo during the crowd-pleasing summertime anthem “Mexico,” it felt more like a concession to amphitheater expectation than a desire to show off.

If this seems like an overabundance of talent hired to play songs that are designed to showcase their simplicity, consider that Taylor has always been guarded. Since the outset of his career, he’s appeared to be nursing a deep hurt that responds to no salve, and his humor — he really is a very witty man — feels like an attempt to keep a hostile world at bay. Interaction with his band helped him warm up; appreciative reception from the crowd got him comfortable. By the second half of the 24-song show, he was mugging his way through “Steamroller,” singing nonsense syllables and acting the part of a grizzled bluesman. Fully oiled, he saved his best playing for the encores: he decorated the bridge of “Shower the People” with a glittering ring of guitar notes.

These were the songs that listeners paid to hear. But Taylor is one of the few singer-songwriters of his generation who continues to make strong new records in the 21st century — even if those records do not acknowledge that the 21st century has arrived. Lesser known songs provided some of the concert’s finest moments. The friendly lope of “Stretch of the Highway,” a recent composition, set the tone of the show’s upbeat second half. (Taylor spent most of the 15-minute intermission at the lip of the stage, shaking fans’ hands and posing for photographs.) “Millworker,” a character study written for a late-’70s musical, demonstrated the communicative power of Taylor’s voice, clear and controlled as a telegraph signal.

Taylor hauled out the obligatory stage-eating video screen for the concert’s home stretch, but for the first half of the show, the set design was as tasteful as the music. Rows of multicolored filament lightbulbs hung over the band, giving the performance area an antique appearance. The illumination was accidentally amplified by the fireflies who wandered over from the Holmdel woods. They must have heard Taylor strumming and figured there’d be a campfire. There wasn’t. It was a perfectly adequate July idyll anyway.