James Taylor is a smooth operator.
Like a suitor who wins over his reluctant date with gentle persuasion, Taylor made at least one skeptical listener feel like one of the luckiest men alive by the conclusion of his concert Saturday night at Starlight Theatre. The majority of the audience of about 8,000 was similarly charmed by Taylor’s amiable persona and tender songs.
Drawing on material culled from over four decades of recordings that have made him a revered figure among millions of baby boomers, the masterful singer-songwriter entertained and uplifted fans for over two engaging hours. His elegant sensibility was as refreshing as a bottomless glass of cool water on a steamy July evening.
The innocuous blandness that weakens much of Taylor’s work was largely absent during his 25-song performance. He opened the show with a clever feint. “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On the Jukebox” is a song about a weary man lacking inspiration. Taylor, by contrast, seemed wholly energized. He danced like a carefree fool on “Sun On the Moon” and chatted about his inspirations for classic material like “Sweet Baby James.”
The audience sighed delightedly at the opening strains of most songs. The soulful drive of “Country Road” and the slinky groove of “One Man Parade” provided a couple of the evening’s most riveting moments. The hopeful “Another Day” served as a seductive litany of sweet nothings.
An 11-piece band helped Taylor set the mood. The vibrant contributions of percussionist Luis Conte and drummer Steve Gadd enlivened a rendition of “Mexico.” Jazz keyboardist Larry Goldings added a zestful organ solo to “Steamroller.” A swinging horn section transformed the cloying 1977 hit “Your Smiling Face” into a lusty romp, while a lovely orchestral reading of “Frozen Man” showcased the ensemble’s sensitivity.
Four supporting vocalists offered heavenly harmonies, but they occasionally smothered Taylor’s exceptionally warm voice. They sat out during Taylor’s beguiling take on “Secret O’ Life.” The joy Taylor invested into laudatory readings of the Motown staple “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” and Jimmy Jones’ 1960 hit “Handy Man” hardly resembled his cloying hit versions of the songs.
A hushed interpretation of “You’ve Got a Friend” during the encore was even better. It served as the equivalent of a tender kiss goodnight. Taylor promised that he and his band intended to return to Kansas City soon. It’s a date.