James Taylor And Bonnie Raitt At Prudential Center, Thursday, July 6th, 2017, Reviewed
So here we have the branded James Taylor, if he was Tinkerbell in Disney World he couldn’t be more branded. From the gangly frame, to the newsboy cap, to the vernacular wiseacre person, to the MOR star country folk singer songwriter deep green and blues, everything about him is a popular brand somewhere where surreal and unreal meet in the middle. When James Taylor claims, as he did during a filmed presentation before the show at the Prudential Center last night, “I don’t present a character, I don’t present a version of myself, I present myself,” it requires an explanation as to what precisely Taylor means by the world “self”.
Opening act, the terrific blues guitarist Bonnie Raitt, now she doesn’t present a character though she is one. In her hour long warm up to James, Raitt garnered two spontaneous standing o’s. The first for a sublime take on John Prine’s powerful “Angel From Montgomery” and another for a blistering cover of Talking Head’s “Burning Down The House”. On a certain level Raitt is to rock what Diana Krall is to jazz: a standard bearer for women and if that sounds like sexism, blame the music biz, Raitt is a sizzling hotshot, with a taste for engourging her senses and an activists taste for sexuality… oh, and a 70s chic’ks taste for sex. She leads her band with savvy and also with cliché, dedicating song after song for some reason known only to herself, to people I don’t know. I am not a huge fan myself, I like a lot of things about her, not least her toughness and grit, but one of them isn’t her catalog and that makes her intense smartness, red headed doll companionship, and 60s hippie do goodieness, still sloppy seconds.
Taylor’s catalog I like a whole lot. Working in front of a healthy backing band, who he introduces over and over again and for good reason, he keeps popping in the hits and adds in occasional obscurities, as he performs in front of TaylorWorld, huge screens filled with closed circuit visions of the band as we are watching them, and film and images dotting the Taylor landscape, changing the small scale intimacy of Taylor into a larger than life mythos. It all works as well as we could possibly hope for, and with exceptions what emerges is 50 odd years of consistent excellence. And I do mean consistent, the worst thing about the entire show is that he short changed his last two albums, Before This World and October Road (hell, you could include 1997’s Hourglass as well) –both of which stand up to even his greatest work, I put them ahead of Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon. Elsewhere he dips in deeper, introducing “First Of May” with a terrific story, “My father used to do this thing every year, he used to say this thing every time the first of M ay rolled around, the same pronouncement. A sort of faraway look would come into his eye, he’d get a little misty and he’d say, ‘Hurray, hurray…’ we used to listen for it, we knew he was going to say it sometime during the day ‘hurray, hurray the first of May, outdoor fucking starts today…’” The song was almost on par with the story, a jazzy Caribbean flow song, giving saxophonist Lou Marini the chance to shine and concluding with an excellent flute solo.
James father made another appearance before the night was over, the hero of a story where his dad drove from North Carolina to the Lower East Side to find his wayward young son and drive him back home. James got a good song out of it, “Jump Back Behind Me”. Actually the deep album tracks, the cover songs, and the hits are all of a piece, not soundwise but the quality never comes close to dipping at all, a rollicking “Mexico” was highlighted by Luis Contes’ percussion and the legendary Steve Gadd on drums. There were only two clinkers, an obnoxious “Steamroller Blues” and a less than lucid “Sweet Baby James”.
Taylor is a swell entertainer, a particularly brand that went from junkie manic depressive whose two biggest songs are a lullaby and a suicide tribute, to a beloved everyman superstar, and now, a Disney character Grandpa full of brittle and crispy oneliners like, “I love you too, though I don’t know why” aimed at a particularly aggressive admirer. Hell, Taylor is so cool Taylor Swift was named after him. He stands in search of some hidden depth in the mists of the jolly springtime, and unlike just about any of his contemporaries, he finds it consistently, even if it boils down to ten songs every five years. James has come out the other side with his soul intact… if he can do it, maybe we can do it. Maybe it will even help us all to sleep.