July 4, 2012 | « back

THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE – James Taylor at Tanglewood: Charisma and authenticity

James Taylor and Taylor Swift share the stage in The Shed at Tanglewood during the first of JT’s three concerts at the historic venue, culminating with tonight’s big Fourth of July celebration. (Photo courtesy Hilary Scott)

LENOX — There’s a double mystery about James Taylor’s enduring appeal to multiple generations of fans who turn out every year not only at Tanglewood — 54,000 strong for the three Shed performances that end tonight with the county’s best fireworks show — but overseas and across North America for his annual tours.

The first conundrum can only be solved through speculation. The robust quality of his voice at Monday night’s high-energy performance of songbook classics as well as a few, rarely-heard deep tracks could be explained by his healthy, athletic lifestyle. Yet, a look at his road-show schedule since March still begs the question of how a 64-year-old, indefatigable performer can keep up so hectic a pace.

The second quandary is more easily settled. The greatest hits collection he re-created for his devoted audience included such evergreens as “Mexico,” “Your Smiling Face,” “Shower the People,” “How Sweet It Is,” “Carolina,” “Sweet Baby James,” “Fire and Rain,” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” among others.

Though we all know the words and the audience often sang along with encouragement from the stage, Taylor, through some chart rearrangements and a touch of vocal improvisation, managed to make them sound fresh and vital. And he generously credited his band members and backup singers, most of them longtime collaborators with a couple of new faces this year.

Nevertheless, there is a hard-to-explain, magical quality to these gatherings, a communal spirit of shared experience going back, for many of us, to his eponymous debut album produced by Paul McCartney and first released in December 1968 on the Beatles’ Apple label.

Taylor has had his share of hard times, including drug addiction during the ‘80s that coincided with a lull in his career, but he emerged strong er than ever thanks to an indomitable spirit and a thoroughly professional dedication to honing his craft.

On Monday night, his two sets lasting just over two hours also included several of his crowd-pleasing, hard-rocking hits — “Steamroller,” “Slap Leather” and “Sun on the Moon” — that brought the audience to their feet in a paroxysm of near-ecstasy. But, as a master of timing and pacing, Taylor followed these with a mellow melange of his more contemplative, soft-rock classics.

Taylor beamed with the benevolent gaze of a veteran performer introducing Tangle wood audiences to the rapidly rising country-pop crossover superstar Taylor Swift, who collaborated with him on “Fire and Rain” and returned after intermission to perform two of her own breakout selections, “Ours” and “Love Story.” Her parents, devoted JT fans, named their daughter after him, and she exuded a genuine thrill to be sharing his stage, as he did at one of her Madison Square Garden concerts last November.

“He’s this most amazing, down-to-earth person!” she said, recounting how he invited her to join him “for this little show I do in Lenox, Massa chusetts.”

“This is no little show,” Swift observed sagely. And her fans — mostly young and female — made no secret of their enthralled rapture at her presence (videos are already posted on YouTube).

Taylor’s three-song encore started off with “You’ve Got a Friend,” accompanied by a full-throated audience chorus, and included a novelty, his take on Chubby Checker’s “Do the Twist.” We saw teens, parents and grandparents dancing in the aisles.

Joined by his wife, Kim, Taylor ended with his now-traditional “Close Your Eyes,” designed to send fans home with a lump in their throats.

In the end, the mystery of a performer’s 43-year enduring ride at or near the top of the pop-folk-rock pantheon can best be resolved with two words: charisma and authenticity. Those qualities he possesses to the nth degree.