The air is hanging heavy with the unashamed whiff of nostalgia. From the introductory sequence – a spectacular montage of video clips, photos and soundbites reflecting both James Taylor’s creative and family life through the years – to his concluding duet some two hours later with opening act Bonnie Raitt on ‘You Can Close Your Eyes’ (taken from Taylor’s 1971 album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon), we are treated to a show that relies greatly upon reminiscence and relocation to a much earlier time.
Now 70 years of age, James Taylor was one of a raft of broadly similar, acoustic guitar-strumming North American singer-songwriters – think here of Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, to whom Taylor was subsequently married – who emerged out of the Laurel Canyon hills in the late 1960s/early ‘70s with their heads full of quandary and a raft of intimate tunes in which tangled relationships, heartache and associated soul-searching were usually the key ingredients.
Such heartfelt narratives could often be located within the context of an artist’s huge appetite for self-destruction and in this regard James Taylor was a fully paid-up member of that club. Taylor had a particular passion for heroin, an addiction that was compounded by his then significant mental health problems. And whilst he would not get clean until the 1980s, none of these tribulations caused any particular impediment to his astonishing, ongoing success. The now five-time Grammy Award winner has shifted more than 100 million records in his lifetime, the single biggest-selling album being his Greatest Hits.
The facts that James Taylor’s Greatest Hits was originally released in 1976 and we get all twelve tracks from it here tonight and that of all the songs he plays not one of them post-dates his 1991 album New Moon Shine (from which ‘Shed A Light’ is taken) affirms the clear sense of him taking us all on a collective stroll back down memory lane.
There are occasions when the whole experience veers uncomfortably close to something approaching the end-of-the pier. ‘Mexico’, with its spirited knees-up joie-de-vivre, bears witness to the rather unedifying sight of some members of the audience of a certain age – and this older demographic, quite understandably, does represent the vast majority of those who are in the auditorium tonight – jiggling around in a manner that can only loosely be described as dancing. And the second encore of what is probably James Taylor’s most well-known song, his cover of Carole King’s ‘You’ve Got A Friend’, verges on parody.
But when it really hits the mark – as it quite frequently does – the music that James Taylor and his impeccable band produce is unquestionably life-affirming. The opener ‘Carolina In My Mind’ is sublime. On ‘Country Road’ – which emerges out of the energetic Andrea Zonn inspired ‘Fiddle Drum’ – his voice is just as sweet as it has ever been. Written for his then newly born nephew, ‘Sweet Baby James’ captures all of Taylor’s unabashed deep love of family. And listening to ‘Fire and Rain’ again is like suddenly being reacquainted with some long-lost friend.
These songs may well be decades old, but they are just as equally timeless. Their lyrical themes of love, loss, family and friendships are eternal and the deceptively simple melodies in which these words are enshrined will surely remain with us forever.
Photos: Simon Godley