James Taylor opened his current tour last night at Auckland’s Vector Arena. Nick Bollinger was there to witness his humility and craftsmanship.
While Guns N’ Roses played out their cartoon rebel personas to a packed Western Springs, across town James Taylor offered up what might have been the opposite of a Guns N’ Roses show. On a stage furnished only with instruments – no screens or smoke, and barely even any visible monitor speakers – Taylor and his ten-piece band performed more than two hours of music that seemed designed to sooth rather than excite. And he did so with humility and delicate craftsmanship.
That such a low-key performer ever became an arena star pivots on the period in the early 70s, when he emerged with several iconic hits including his own ‘Fire and Rain’ and his definitive version of Carole King’s ‘You’ve Got A Friend’. Naturally, these songs featured in his Vector set – the King tune prefaced with an introduction about the first time he heard it, not realising that he’d wind up having to sing it every night for the rest of his life. “One could do worse”, he said, with customary understatement.
The show (the first of his current tour) was filled out with material from across his close-to-50-year career.‘Carolina In My Mind’, from his 1968 debut for The Beatles’ Apple label, was introduced with a recollection of finding himself in London, in the company of heroes Paul McCartney and George Harrison, realising he was at a life-changing moment yet suffering from a desperate homesickness.
Newer songs like “Today Today Today’ and “Montana’ were introduced, almost apologetically, with the reassurance that “they’re just like the old ones.”
Taylor’s music is an individual and sophisticated mix of styles. A deft acoustic guitarist with his own distinctive voicings, he combines this cornerstone of 60s folk with elements of soul, R&B, gospel and even jazz. His trio of backing singers (Andrea Zonn, Kate Markowitz and Arnold McCuller) and classy horn section (saxophonist Lou Marini of Blues Brothers fame and trumpeter Walt Fowler) lent an understated funk to the more upbeat tunes, including covers of soul standards ‘Knock On Wood’ and ‘How Sweet It Is’ and his own ‘I’ve Got To Stop Thinkin’ ‘Bout That’.
Towards the end of the night, the deep groove of his excellent rhythm section seemed to inspire him to take a Chuck Berry-style duckwalk across the stage – a rare moment of showbiz histrionics.
In the early 70s, Taylor’s music may have been balm to a generation beleaguered by America’s long-running war in Vietnam and Nixon’s rule, but there was a sense tonight that things have come a full circle. “I’m sorry about our President”, he said early in the show, to a roar of applause. If there was a quiet message that seemed to run through his choice of songs, it was one of love and human decency. “Shower the people you love with love”, he sang in another of his 70s hits, while a particular highpoint was ‘Shed A Little Light’, from his 1991 album New Moon Shine, which opens in rich a cappella harmony with the lines “Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King, and recognise that there are ties between us.”
Taylor’s recognition of those ties carried on into the intermission. As his band took a twenty-minute break, he went to the edge of the stage to shake the hand of an eager fan and remained crouched there for the duration, signing autographs and submitting to selfies. When the other musicians returned he simply picked up his guitar, rolled up his sleeves and went back to work.
James Taylor played Vector Arena, Auckland, 4 February and Church Road Winery in Napier 5 February.