June 10, 2016 | « back

TIMESCOLONIST.COM — James Taylor creates setlist for his Canadian fans

By Mike Devlin

ire and rain were metaphors for the darkness that permeated the early part of James Taylor’s life, but the singer-songwriter known as J.T. eventually made his way through the storm, brightening the darkest nights of his many fans in the process.

Taylor had some grey days himself, many decades ago, the result of an extended period of depression and heroin addiction. Songs he wrote as coping mechanisms endeared him to millions, however, making the North Carolina-raised musician one of the biggest stars of the 1970s, if not the decade’s top singer-songwriter.

Taylor, 68, is back on one of his famous creative rolls, selling out large venues with a hit record, 2015’s Before This World, currently in stores. Taylor’s first batch of new material in 13 years, and the first of his 50-year career to debut at No. 1 on the sales charts, has led to a world tour that includes 15 dates in Canada, the final two of which are Friday in Victoria and Saturday in Vancouver.

The songs Taylor and his band are playing on the tour are bursting with pathos, a marked characteristic of an acclaimed catalogue that included eight Top 40 hits by the end of 1976. As a writer, Taylor shares with his audience the joy, pain, success and failure of his life. Winter, spring, summer or fall, he’s there, like a friend.

In concert, the Massachusetts-based performer is all smiles. An all-American musician with a golden throat and lovable disposition, Taylor still nails every nuance, and is enjoying life as a legend with few peers.

Genuine is a word that is often used to describe the five-time Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member. Generous is another adjective used to describe him and, true to form, he spends the intermission of his current concerts perched at the front of the stage, signing autographs for fans.

His concerts are veritable love-ins, on account of the bandleader’s desire to keep his audience entertained.

“I remember going to see [jazz singer] Sarah Vaughan once,” Taylor said during an interview with the Times Colonist, “but none of the songs she played resembled in the slightest what I was expecting to hear. It was interesting to a certain extent, but I really did want to hear Sarah Vaughan perform those [original] arrangements.

“We’re aware of that. We are playing the songs as they ideally have become, but they’re still definitely recognizable as the songs as people know them.”

He’s on the road with a show that was once billed as James Taylor and His Band of Legends. These days, his concerts are attributed to James Taylor and His All-Star Band, which is equally accurate. Taylor’s 10-piece group sports no shortage of in-demand players, from keyboardist Larry Goldings and percussionist Luis Conte to saxophonist Lou Marini and drummer Steve Gadd. Given his well-known kindness, which pairs nicely with his talent, it’s no wonder Taylor is able to recruit the best of the best.

Taylor is equally impressed by their abilities.

“That I get them to play my music, that’s sort of the real honour,” he said. “That’s the real golden ring.”

He has enjoyed his trip through Canada over the past month, as he feels a close connection to the country. Between his two dates in Newfoundland, Taylor went “iceberg hunting.” And after learning of the situation in fire-ravaged Fort McMurray, Taylor said he would donate all proceeds from his shows in Edmonton and Calgary to the Red Cross and its wildfire relief efforts.

What’s more, Taylor said his setlist on this run of dates is tailored for his Canadian fans.

His version of the Carole King hit You’ve Got a Friend closes the majority of his concerts in other markets. Taylor and his band have been closing sets in Canada with Wild Mountain Thyme, in part because “it seems to be a song Canadians know,” Taylor said. “Another thing I love about playing in Canada.”

Taylor said he also took to playing 1991’s The Frozen Man while he was in the Maritimes, because “Maritimers know about the Franklin expedition” and would likely have some knowledge of the failed Arctic voyage.

“We do have a set that is for Canada, and we’re aware of the fact that we haven’t been there for six years, and haven’t been to [some cities, including Victoria] since 2008. We’ve got four new songs in the set, but we’re also including stuff that we assume our Canadian audience wants to hear.”

Taylor said he likes to keep things malleable at his concerts. There is plenty of material to choose from, and many directions in which his band can travel musically.

“It’s a constant evolution of the song, and a constant perfection of it, in a way. It is not jazz — we’re not out there to play a different version of the song every night. It’s almost as if we’re there to perfect the version we’ve been working on, and that happens. You can hear the arrangements suddenly change.”

New songs are going over well in concert, he said, but there is no denying the pull of nostalgia that hits when his most famous material — Fire and Rain, Carolina in My Mind, Sweet Baby James, Country Road and How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) — comes up in concert.

“We’re definitely happy to play those songs,” Taylor said. “So much of it comes from what the audience response is. It’s not a one-way street. It really is a communal experience, what happens in a concert.

“I wouldn’t sit down here in my hotel room, take out the guitar, and play myself You’ve Got a Friend. But playing it in front of an audience is a totally different experience. We’re very, very keyed in to what they respond to. That’s why we’re there.”