POLLSTAR.COM – Sweet Baby James & The Pretender Still Running On
By: Holly Gleason
By the time James Taylor emerged to sing “The Pretender” with Jackson Browne, offering the line “Out into the cool of the evening strolls the Pretender / He knows that all of his hopes and dreams begin and end there…,” it became apparent the singer/songwriters’ stop at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena was going to be much more than a hit fest of soft rock favorites from the ‘70s and ‘80s. More than nostalgia, these songs not only endure but expanded to include the life-worn truths of coming of age in the 21st century by two American treasures.
There was no preaching, no stridency, no toxic shock of 24-hour news cycles, yet the humanity and clarity on display firmly reminded the crowd of their decency, generosity and kindness. Browne, from SoCal, did an exceptional job merging new songs that connected the dots on plastics clogging and killing the ocean (“Downhill from Everywhere”) with shimmering takes on classics (“Fountain of Sorrow,” “Late for the Sky”) before winding up with a surging “Running On Empty” that’s lost none of its bite. Indeed, the urgency of “Empty” serves a clarion call for generations facing global, ecological, personal and health crisis at every turn.
Browne, 72, always the bruised romantic, still represents a raging against the dying of the day. At a time of overwhelm, “Doctor My Eyes” feels desperately current, while “My Cleveland Heart” buoys hope in a time of overload.
With a heroic band, Browne brought both dynamics and a wide-open spirit. It was a reminder that laid back can rock with a genuine sense of thrust as well as musicianship from players including Bob Glaub and Greg Leisz.
James Taylor, now 73, from North Carolina, Boston and Martha’s Vineyard, is in many ways the more cozy. While a bit more mellow, he spent his time onstage expanding and reconfiguring many of his best loved songs. “Carolina In My Mind” turned on five-part harmonies and Taylor’s acoustic guitar, while “Mexico” percolated under Latin rhythms, a thicker layer of instruments punctuated with horn blasts that all gave way to an incredible vocal freestyle/percussion fest. Later, “Shower The People” would also have a vocal vamping session with the crowd singing and clapping along; Arno McCuller stood out with an incredible set of vocal runs that prompted cheers from the already invested audience.
Charming, a bit awkward and hilarious, Taylor is the uncle everyone loves the most. Talking about the pedal taverns and “wooo!” girls, he impaled Nashville’s drunk Bridezilla nation. When he introduced “That’s Why I’m Here” for “my friends in recovery,” he quickly added, “And don’t worry: we’ve got plenty if you’re fucked up, too.”
That buttery suede voice lands as a comfort and reassurance. Playing “You Can Close Your Eyes” with just his son Henry at the foot of the stage, the tenderness and family ties created a reminder of how small, simple truths shape the best of what life can be.
With “Take It Easy” driving the encore – and co-writer Browne onstage – the night took on the vibe of a frat party band having its own kind of fun. This was the hedonism of the time period both emerged from, and it reminded those in their 40s, 50s and 60s who they were back then, but it also offered the large number of people in their 20s and 30s a sense of why this music engaged so viscerally back when.
“You’ve Got A Friend,” with Taylor’s five singers and Browne, was the benediction the night deserved. With a smile and a twinkle in his blue eyes, the pledge of being there for each other, was perhaps the message most necessary. In a hard, callous world, the idea of being there with one another was exactly what the people needed to hear.