ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER — Singer-songwriter James Taylor delivers a terrific night of classic tunes at the Hollywood Bowl
By Peter Larsen
At the end of the night, as James Taylor sang the final notes of his last song, Sheryl Crow, who’d opened the show and had come back out to sing harmony on “You Can Close Your Eyes,” wiped a tear or two from her eyes and gave a kind of bashful smile as Taylor hugged her and smiled at the audience that filled the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday.
It was a warm moment on a night filled with many, and perhaps a small acknowledgement by Taylor that he knew he’d done his job well if it moved Crow, a star in her right, and the crowd, some of whom were also mixing cheers with tears, to feel something real.
Taylor, at 70, remains one of the defining figures of the singer-songwriter era that emerged in the ’70s. And with a catalog of hits and voice still strong and pure, he’s also one of the best still performing. (It’s been a good few weeks at the Bowl for this kind of music, with three nights from singer-songwriter Paul Simon just done as Taylor arrived for a pair of his own.)
“Carolina In My Mind” opened his two hours on stage, with Taylor sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar and three backing vocalists providing gorgeous harmonies, and as the night unfolded that kind of lovely moment happened again and again.
The show at times felt like a family reunion of sorts, between Taylor and fans, who cheered early numbers such as “Country Road” and “Walking Man,” but also between him and the musicians he bills as His All-Star Band, each of whom got a separate introduction after a solo or featured spot in a song, with a photo or two of them as kids shown on the video screens like pages pulled from a family album.
And while his songs often have a wistful, yearning quality – a lot of these are love songs of different sorts – Taylor also flashed his sense of humor at times, telling a ribald story about his dad by way of introducing the Brazilian-tinged “First Of May,” or introducing his 1977 hit “Handy Man” as “a lovely song about a male prostitute.”
After a relatively laid-back opening run of songs the energy on stage and in the crowd started to pick up around the time Taylor switched from acoustic to a Carolina blue electric guitar for a gritty run through “Steamroller Blues” that ended with lead guitarist Mike Landau’s rousing solo, and after a gentler take on the Carole King-Jerry Goffin classic “Up On The Roof,” a lively version of his own “Mexico” which got the crowd to its feet once more.
But the true highlight of the night came a few minutes later in the back-to-back pairing of “Sweet Baby James,” the title track of his breakthrough 1970 album, and “Fire And Rain,” its biggest single, and one of Taylor’s signature songs. These two songs as much as anything capture the essence of the singer-songwriter genre in the intimate, personal stories the lyrics tell, and the sensitive, emotional accompaniment of his guitar and the band. On the album they are standouts, and at the Hollywood Bowl played live they were that on Thursday as well.
“Fire and Rain” is beautiful but quite a serious song, inspired by the suicide of a childhood friend, his battle with addiction, and struggle with failure and fame, so he rightly shifted gears to wrap up the main set on a more uplifting note, running through his own songs “Your Smiling Face” and “Shower The People,” before closing with his cover of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” all which had the audience on their feet to dance and sing along.
The encore offered more happiness for everyone including Sheryl Crow, who duetted on “Mockingbird,” left the stage for “You’ve Got a Friend,” the Carole King classic, and returned to close out the show with tears and hugs and warmth all around.
In her own hour-long opening set Crow, who replaced Bonnie Raitt on these dates after Raitt had to bow out for medical reasons, shared that the second-ever concert she attended on her own as a 15-year-old in Memphis was a James Taylor show and she was smitten from the first.
“He was wearing a white suit and I was so sure I was gonna marry him,” she said with a big grin. “I missed the boat but he’s still my favorite.”
She played a strong set of her own material, though traffic and long lines at the gates kept many from hearing “All I Wanna Do,” her breakout hit. She and her band were strong throughout, though, with highlights such as “If It Makes You Happy” and “Every Day is a Winding Road,” her closing number for which Taylor came out to play guitar and sing with her.
No tears, though. At least as far as we could see.