Forest Hills Stadium is located in a residential area in the middle class Queens neighborhood from where acts as diverse as Simon And Garfunkel and the Ramones emerged: a sort of mini-Long Island for the affluent but not very affluent. If you had worked your way to the last row at the stadium last night during the James Taylor And His Allstars concert, you could have looked down at homes where the folks who lived there had unfolded their beach chairs and opened their coolers and sat themselves outside on a warm summer night, stared upwards at us, though there was nothing they could see, and listened intently as the free music drifted down like a Spotify Freemium tier come to life.
Forty minutes into the first set, James would’ve been heard discussing a time he’d return to a couple more times before the night was over, London in 1968. Where, after years in and out of institutions, and a wicked heroin addiction in abeyance for a little while, he got his big break when he met Peter Asher, sang “Something In The Way She Moves” to Paul and George, and got signed to Apple Records. But it was James’ first extended absence and he was suffering from homesickness (he’d return two years later and write a song for his namesake nephew born in his absence and that was that) and wrote a song about it, “Carolina In My Mind”. Last night he played it slow as molasses, a remembrance of a past remembrance of a further past, the distance between one and the other like the slow drawl nostalgia, as Taylor weaved a magical spell in the midsummer night dream world. We longed for the days when we longed for the days. He followed it with “Your Smiling Face”, off JT -Taylor’s middle of punk rock countermeasure,and yet another artist we punks dismissed in self-righteous fury at the addled indifference of the rock aristocrazy. Here, it is like Taylor took the spell and he flipped it into the happiest moment of the evening: a track James doesn’t always perform but one he might want to play often. Punctuated by horns, it has the jump of swing, and a melodic singer songwriter smartness, Tay scats and sings with an infectious happiness. And then, because music is a mood, he quietens the proceedings to a heart aching pulse for one of the most intense performances of “Fire And Rain” you’ll ever hear.
Outside, inside,anywhere within range of the voice was transported, and the evening doesn’t reach this moment of blissful community again. The first set is close to perfect but the second set has one too many missteps -a “Sweet Baby James” with the singer adding words here and there for no reason: “he sings out a song which is soft but it’s clear just as if maybe someone could hear” The addition of that one word kills the flow (and it is something he does all song long). It sure stops people from singing along. So many songs are missing from the setlist but like Tay says: “I don’t have time to play them all”. However, skimping on “You’ve Got A Friend” is pretty much inexcusable, and on a personal level I have yet to hear “September Grass” live. Instead and oddly, his encore of “knock On Wood” and two whatevers was not a great concept from a great crowd pleaser.
The two hour plus intermission had a beat and a brain behind it even if I didn’t agree with it all the time. The opening “Wandering” seguing into “Secret O’ Life” should have disappointed in some way, but they were such an intensely and becoming statement, like the preface to a memoir, they completely clicked. WIth background singers soaring behind him, and a backing band that deserved the “All Star” monicker he gave them, it was the perfect match of arrogance and self-effacement. The band itself moved from jazz inflections to blues to pop rockers and to James calling card, singer songwriter bummers, with complete ease. Taylor was a very supportive leader, introducing each member of the band, and that is Steve Gadd -who has played with James on and off since the 1980s, and who can be heard on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”, and on Steely Dan’s “Aja”. Let me introduce to one more member of the band, “Blue” Lou Marini on horns. His resume: “Woody Herman Orchestra, Doc Severinsen, Blood, Sweat and Tears, The Band, Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars, Dr. John, Frank Zappa, Saturday Night Live (SNL) Band, The Blues Brothers, Maureen McGovern, Lew Soloff Quintet, Blue Beck with Joe Beck, Eric Clapton, Red House, and the Magic City Jazz Orchestra.” Yup. All Stars indeed, here is the rest of the band:
Kate Markowitz – Vocals
Andrea Zonn – Vocals/Fiddle
David Lasley – Vocals
Arnold McCuller – Vocals
Walt Fowler – Horns/Keyboard
Mike Landau – Electric Guitar
Jimmy Johnson – Bass Guitar
Larry Goldings – Piano/Keyboard
Luis Conte – Percussion
With a band this good, Taylor was completely assured, through the two hours. The second half didn’t drag, it just seemed a little misplaced. We got four songs off his new album, but we didn’t get “Jolly Springtime” or the most James-y song on the album, “Stretch Of The Highway”. James spent the 20 minute intermission signing autographs and really, this is a new and improved James. Gone is the caustic veering on cruel humor he used to pepper his show with. I saw him, fourth row at Theatre At MSG, in the 1990s, play a rote set with a nasty attitude. Good vibes bring good vibes and Taylor has such a great kind vibes at the moment, you are willing to go along anywhere.
But to Fenway Park? “I’m digging myself deeper in, aren’t I?” James chuckles explaining his ode to the 2004 Red Sox on “Angels In Fenway” as the audience erupts into a “Let’s Go Mets” chant. James performs it very well, an evening highlight, and the good natured crowd clap loudly a the end. The second set dips till a sweltering blues workout out on “Steamroller Blues” where the full band plays big dividends for Taylor than another dip till he leads us out with a Cuban flavored by percussionist Luis Conte “Mexico”. and a more Gaye than Tay “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” took us to the encore.
If this is a long tour, they may want to rethink the encore. All three songs were pretty good, “Knock On Wood” was especially fine but “Sun on the Moon” followed by “You and I Again”? WIth all the songs he had at his disposable, it made no sense to me.
A beautiful evening with beautiful songs by a man at the peak of his powers at 67 years of age. Given all the ways James Taylor’s life might have gone, his brother Alex, sweet baby James pop, died of a drug overdose decades ago, that James could have lived through it all and reached this place better than ever? It is a testament to the possibility that life may redeem you, if you’re lucky… not a bad description of James Taylor’s songs, either.
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