in performance: james taylor

james taylor performing last night at rupp arena. photo by matt goins.

james taylor performing last night at rupp arena. photo by matt goins.

It wasn’t the most flamboyant of entrances for a veteran pop star, even one as seemingly retiring as James Taylor. Prior to beginning his first ever Rupp Arena concert, the songsmith took off his cap and bowed to the crowd of 8,300. He looked less like a celebrity and more like a cabbie come to collect a fare.

Such an unassuming profile, however, more than befitted a concert that relished in simple, folk-pop comfort. For over two hours, Taylor played decades-old favorites, almost apologetically delved into five fine works from his 2015 album Before This World and, in some the show’s finest moments, uncorked a few generous surprises.

One of the latter opened the performance – a relative obscurity from 1975’s Gorilla album called Wandering. It was a beaut of tune to begin with, too – one with such melodic delicacy and wistful vocal deposition that you tended to overlook the verse about how the protagonist’s thief father was executed by hanging. Such was the genial nature of the song’s lyrical construction and Taylor’s lullaby-like delivery.

Sometimes the arrangements altered several of the more familiar soundscapes, like the way all-star drummer Steve Gadd erupted with a few rolls of thunder as the otherwise plaintive Country Road drew to a close or the way Mexico turned into a travelogue featuring a mariachi turn by trumpeter Walt Fowler and saxophonist Lou Marini before percussionist Louis Conte veered the resulting jam straight to his native Cuba.

But these were simple adjustments in frame settings for tunes Taylor’s fans know every syllable and note of. Luckily, these are also works that Taylor, given the hundreds and even thousands of times he has performed them, still sings with fresh and almost impish vigor. His voice, still clear in tone and intent, has also lost none of its unhurried charm.

That leaves the songs themselves, the majority of which are quite extraordinary. Sure, Your Smiling Face, which almost approximated rock ‘n’ roll, and the blues-jazz party piece Steamroller didn’t push the envelope much. But what did was taking arguably Taylor’s most unabashedly comforting tune, Shower the People, and using a chorus snippet of Purple Rain as its intro and the titanic soul voice of Arnold McCuller as the captain of its coda. It was part eulogy, part affirmation and part testimony.

Speaking of eulogies, Taylor’s best known work, Fire and Rain, still packed the emotional impact of a tidal wave. What was surprising last night wasn’t how quietly commanding the song remains, but how a story of such overpowering sadness could still sound so unobtrusive and darkly intimate.

The Before This World music fit in nicely with the classics, as well, especially Jolly Springtime, which was prefaced by the album’s brief instrumental title tune. Both combined to form a saga of new beginnings, but the story was told with the same quiet contentment that dressed Taylor’s oldest material, like the homesick 1968 reverie Carolina on My Mind, performed earlier in the evening.

It should be noted that Taylor hasn’t been on a Lexington stage since the early ‘70s. As such, veteran fans that have witnessed his frequent performances over the years in neighboring cities might have viewed last night’s show as something of a rerun. But for everyone else wondering why in the world it took half a lifetime for him to play Rupp, patience was rewarded. With cap literally in hand, Taylor returned like an old friend, full of stories that still stir and soothe the soul.



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