June 9, 2014 | « back

ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER – James Taylor comfortably familiar at the Bowl

By: Ben Wener

Any Kings fans at the Hollywood Bowl June 7 for James Taylor’s first of two packed shows there, rather than across town at Staples Center where the L.A. team was facing the New York Rangers in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, didn’t have to wait to watch the results via DVR.

As so often happens at his (or really anyone’s) performances, hollered comments from the crowd filled the gaps between songs throughout both halves of his easygoing but exactingly detailed set. Some shouted requests that went unnoticed. Many women (and men) proclaimed their love. A few vocal admirers down front let him know it was their birthday.

Ever-affable Taylor – who after nearly a half-century of performing has long since perfected not only his unmistakable finger-picking fretwork but also Bob Newhart-esque comedic timing – knew exactly how to respond, even if it meant losing his way a little. At one point he began to explain how his smoothed-over yet pumped-up rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” might make a fine birthday tune, only to realize it actually wasn’t next on his list, a deep track from 1981’s Dad Loves His Work was. (“But … but … w-w-we will play it soon.”)

A couple songs later, however, the murmurings reached a boiling point. Initially, JT couldn’t make out what was being hurled his direction. “I think perhaps we make fun of James,” he remarked in a mock-pouty voice, briefly hiding his face. Then the truth came out.

“The Kings won?” he asked. The place erupted.

“That’s fantastic news. Thank you for telling me that. I’ve got just the song for that!”

That got a huge laugh, because of course he doesn’t; his next piece was “Millworker,” a hard-times portrait from 1979’s “Flag,” about a woman toiling in a shoe manufacturing plant in Lowell, Mass. Before he played it, though, he double-checked the news from across town: “That happened just now at Staples Center?” he reiterated. “And we had to be at a James Taylor concert …”

Again the audience roared, louder and longer than they had for the Kings’ victory. And they kept right on cheering the rest of the night – from the inspirational “Lo and Behold” (one of five cuts revived from 1970’s Sweet Baby James, including the title lullaby) to the churning blues of “Steamroller” (another SBJ track) to his soulful redo of “Handy Man” and his two Carole King remakes, his indelible version of “You’ve Got a Friend” and her cityscape classic for the Drifters, “Up on the Roof.”

It took a more robust finale to get people on their feet, first via “Mexico” and “Your Smiling Face” to end the main set, and continuing with the Holland/Dozier/Holland pearl “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” and his own hopeful anthem “Shower the People” in the encore.

For the latter two, his wife, Kim, and son, Henry, joined Taylor’s impressive quartet of backing singers, still led by the mighty pipes of Arnold McCuller. Everything, meanwhile, was conjured by a remarkable band of aces, including Michael Landau on guitar, Blues Brothers saxophonist Lou Marini and an unbeatable rhythm team of drummer Steve Gadd and percussionist Luis Conte, whose timbale playing on “Mexico” helped relocate that escapist ditty to Havana.

Along the way, this sprawling gathering – as big a draw as Taylor received when he toured with King for a stunning 2010 tour – was treated not only to lesser-heard catalog nuggets such as “Hour That the Morning Comes” (another gem from “somewhere in the middle distance back there,” about an epic party) but also several freshly penned bits, like the loping “Today Today Today” and the tender “You and I,” suggesting that his first batch of songs in a dozen
years may be imminent. “It’s a new tune,” he mentioned before playing the former piece, “though it sounds like the old ones.”

That hardly matters: One doesn’t turn to James Taylor for innovation and unpredictability but rather consistency and comfort. Saturday at the Bowl he scored on both points, delivering his most well-worn material – like “Fire and Rain,” one of the greatest compositions ever written – with both familiarity and slight but detectable changes in phrasing that renewed meaning and underscored the timelessness of his lyrics.

Sometimes, it was a story that reshaped our understanding, as with “Carolina in My Mind,” a signature song from his Apple Records debut in 1968. That one, he explained, came to him in London while feeling “clinically homesick” at 19, despite watching astounded as the Beatles recorded much of the White Album.

Only during “Steamroller,” which lapsed into parody, did his looseness with structure betray his playful intentions. Otherwise, this was yet another superb display from the beloved songwriter – and still more proof that at 66 he’s as ageless as ever.