James Taylor is as reliable as he has ever been. Now into his fifth decade of recording and performing, Taylor, 66, can still draw a big crowd to a big venue and keep everyone in it engaged and enthused for two hours.
Monday night, he did just that at Starlight Theatre, where more than 7,000 fans watched Taylor and his stellar band deliver two dozens songs that touched upon several stages of a career that is well into its fifth decade.
He opened with one of his earliest songs, “Something in the Way She Moves,” then a new country-folk number called “Today, Today, Today,” then a horn-infused version of another vintage song, “Lo and Behold.”
As always, Taylor brought with him a stellar band, including a world-class percussion section of drummer Steve Gadd and percussionist Luis Conte and a horn/woodwind section that featured Lou Marini of Blues Brothers fame. His pennywhistle flourishes gave “Millworker” a nice Celtic flavor.
The setlist comprised two dozen songs and included all of side one of Taylor’s “Greatest Hits” album, which has sold nearly 12 million copies in the United States alone.
He and his ensemble, which included four background singers, gave a few of those classics some gentle rearrangements without straying too far from their original sounds. “Sweet Baby James,” colored with an accordion and some peals of slide guitar, was slowed to a sweet lament. “Handy Man” was delivered with a jazzy, soulful flavor. And the gorgeous four-part harmonies behind Taylor turned “Carolina” into chorale performance. Taylor still has that smooth and easy voice that can find its falsetto or its bluesy growl, as it did during his campy rendition of “Steamroller,” which ended with a burst of exaggerated scat.
Right before intermission, he sang one of his most famous covers, Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” just like he recorded it. Like so many other songs on this perfect summer evening, it prompted a tide of singing along.
The second set picked up where the first left off. Conte’s timbale solo on “Mexico” was one of several highlights. Taylor’s sparse, mournful rendition of “Fire and Rain” was another. He brought the second set to a close with one of his brightest hits, “Your Smiling Face.” The three-song encore picked up where that one left off: first “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” which started some slow-dancing among the many couples in the big crowd, then “Shower the People,” which aroused the loudest sing-along of the night.
He finished with “Wild Mountain Thyme,” a traditional folk tune that is centuries old. Taylor made it one of his own, one that meshed seamlessly with his many tried, true and durable standards.
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Setlist: Something in the ay She Moves; Today, Today, Today; Lo and Behold; Believe It or Not; Everyday; Country Road; Millworker; Carolina In My Mind; One More Go Round; Sweet Baby James; You’ve Got a Friend; intermission; Stretch of the Highway; You and I; Handy Man; Hour That the Morning Comes; Steamroller; Never Die Young; Fire and Rain; Up on the Roof; Mexico; Your Smiling Face. Encore: How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You); Shower the People; Wild Mountain Thyme.