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It’s not surprising that James Taylor has one of the most unobtrusive, laid-back stage entrances in popular music.
At the Stranahan Theater Saturday night, the stage lights dimmed at about 8:10 and from stage left came Taylor. There was no announcement or fanfare, just one of the 20th century’s greatest singer/songwriters in a pair of jeans and a white mock turtleneck strolling on stage and heading for his guitar.
Taylor’s image has always been that of the mellow troubadour and hit-maker, a man who’s seen his share of pain and come out the other side the better for it. Which means he’s way beyond bombast and aggrandizement, and all about the simple joy of the music.
Opening with “Something in the Way She Moves,” Taylor immediately showcased his seamless blend of finger-picking and strumming on the guitar. He makes something extremely difficult look and sound effortless.
There was no sign of the broken leg he suffered in a ski accident in early March, not even a limp. “Leg’s good,” he said after the song. “When they say go out and break a leg, that’s just a show business expression. You’re not really supposed to do it,” he said.
Taylor was in good spirits all night and he told a story about going to visit his mother last year and coming across an old buddy working on her roof. They talked and he learned his friend had his grown son working with him. Taylor said he watched the father and son sharing lunch on the job and talking, and he had a revelation:
“I said, ‘You know, Ben and I could do that.’”
His son with former wife Carly Simon, Ben strode on stage and stayed there the rest of the night. This is where things could’ve gone bad, given that every time Ben Taylor played a song it represented one less James Taylor tune you were going to hear. Except that the son is an excellent singer and songwriter in his own right and the rapport he shared with his father was evident.
Ben Taylor – who shares his dad’s lanky, athletic build -- has released six albums and his voice is deeper than his father’s without the latter’s smooth tenor. Their vocals blended well and his presence on stage felt comfortable and, most importantly, natural. His original music is a bit more reggae and Caribbean oriented as his dad’s, but he’s also no slouch at the singer/songwriter stuff.
They were backed up by a crack band that featured a pair of backup singers, two keyboards, Michael Landau, a long-time Taylor collaborator on guitar, a bass player and drummer. The show was the last of the tour and the sound and pace of the concert was an expert combination of relaxed and professional.
Taylor played “Carolina In My Mind,” “Mexico,” “Country Road,” “Smiling Face,” “Sweet Baby James” and “Steam Roller Blues,” among others, so no one could go away saying they were cheated. Standouts included a long, soulful take on “Don’t Be Sad ‘Cause Your Sun Is Down,” which Taylor said was given to him by Stevie Wonder; a smoking pop version of “Up On the Roof,” and a bouncy “How Sweet It Is” that seemed addressed directly to the crowd.
Of course Taylor played “Fire and Rain” and of course it was masterful. No doubt he’s played it a million times , but he still treats it with reverence and there was no sense that he considers it a burden.
The night ended with Ben and James Taylor sharing a long embrace and basking in the waves of applause washing down on them. Anyone who was there to share it had to go away knowing they’d just witnessed something special.
Contact Rod Lockwood at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.