PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
August 2, 2005

JT in VB: Memories and Surprises

by Jim Newsom

Ever wonder what kind of Christmas card James Taylor sends? How about a picture card with his young twin sons decked out in Boston Red Sox uniforms?

According to C. J. Oshell, that’s what JT sent out last year. And he should know. His son-in-law, Mark Konrad, is on the road with Sweet Baby James, arranging equipment, directing the onstage production and serving as a self-described “Mexican hat tech” for the boys (and girls) in the band. C. J. and his wife were down from Delaware on Friday, July 22, to see their daughter’s husband and his employer working at the Virginia Beach Amphitheatre.

They were joined by a nearly sold-out crowd, most of whom came not for the roadies but for the man himself, to bask for a couple of hours in the nostalgia of their younger days and enjoy a consummate professional singing the songs of their lives. James Taylor did not disappoint. Surrounded by a clean and simply adorned stage setting with three giant projection screens in the rear, he and his ten-person revue led the gathering through three-and-half decades of musical remembrance.

Where things opened up with a drum solo two years ago, this time ‘round Taylor started quietly with “Secret O’ Life,” a deep cut from 1977, accompanied only by pianist Larry Goldings and his own acoustic guitar. He continued with another rarity when the rest of the band came out, the seasonally appropriate “Summer’s Here” from Dad Loves His Work in ’81.

After a smoking “Your Smiling Face,” the setlist continued to delve into unexpected places, with the traditional folk song “The Water is Wide” fleshed out by Andrea Zahn’s fiddle and the meaning of “Line ‘em Up” fleshed out by Taylor’s introductory comments about Richard Nixon’s White House farewell.

Two songs from the excellent but often overlooked In the Pocket made the cut as a tribute to the late Ray Charles, “Nothing Like a Hundred Miles” and “Everybody Has the Blues,” both of which the Genius recorded in the ‘80s, the latter with Tony Bennett. Taylor’s unearthing reminded the crowd that nobody does a JT song like JT himself.

Set one wrapped up with the rockin’ “Slap Leather,” and three straight hits: “Handy Man,” “Mexico” (with a Luis Conte percussion intro and the horn section adorned in Konrad’s hats) and “Fire and Rain.” As nearly 20,000 middle-aged baby boomers and their offspring sang along with tears welling up in many eyes, “Fire and Rain” served as an elegy to all the dreams of a generation coming of age when they first heard the song in 1970, and of all the hopes dashed by the madness of the world in the intervening 35 years.

After a short intermission, Taylor returned to the stage with the beautiful “Caroline, I See You,” a love song to his present wife from the October Road CD, then launched into a second set of well known tunes: “Sunny Skies,” “Carolina in My Mind,” “Sweet Baby James,” “Never Die Young, “Country Road.” “The Frozen Man” was as close as he has gotten to writing a real folk song himself, and “Steamroller” still holds up as a great blues song, “a churning urn of burning funk” on which guitarist Michael Landau, organ wiz Goldings and saxophonist Lou Marini got some room to wail.

In fact, James Taylor’s band is one of the best around, peppered with legends like Conte and drummer Steve Gadd, Saturday Night Live and Blues Brothers sideman Marini, one-time Zappa bandmember Walt Fowler on trumpet and Goldings, the hottest jazz organist of his generation.

The band sent the crowd dancing into a soulful ecstasy with “How Sweet It Is,” then returned for encores of “Up on the Roof” and a rollicking “Summertime Blues.” Taylor closed the evening alone with his three backing vocalists on “You Can Close Your Eyes” from Mud Slide Slim, a sweet and fitting sendoff for a crowd drenched in memories. While some may have felt let down counting familiar tunes they didn’t get to hear, most seemed satisfied to have spent an evening with their old friend sharing the songs he chose to share.

copyright © 2005 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.