Sweet grownup James.
James Taylor was so relaxed in his playing and his conversational introductions to songs Friday night that he might have been playing an intimate house concert instead of a sold-out crowd of 6,426 at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.
The largely middle-aged audience shrieked at his stage entrance. He waved almost shyly, and started the evening’s set list of 24 songs with “Something in the Way She Moves.”
“It’s not my oldest song, but it’s the earliest song I’m willing to play in public,” joked five-time Grammy winner Taylor, 66.
When a Taylor impersonator sings (like the one who fronted an enjoyable evening with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra earlier this year), he sounds just like the familiar recordings. When the real James Taylor sings, you know it’s not Memorex. He took many of his familiar tunes — the childhood memory-infused “Copperline,” “Country Road,” the lullaby for his namesake nephew “Sweet Baby James,” the mock gigolo’s anthem “Handyman,” the growling “Steamroller Blues,” the homesickness-induced “Carolina” — at a slightly laid-back tempo, phrasing some lines differently than listeners might be used to, even changing up a few words. It created the sense that, even though he’s sung some of these thousands of times, he and his All-Star Band find ways to make it new, and that he is fully present, in this moment, singing this song in this place.
Several times Taylor mentioned his “great good fortune” in being in England when the Beatles were starting Apple Records, and in their role in the beginning of his career. His sense of gratitude shows in his kindness to fans; as the second half of the evening began, he sat on the front of the stage signing autographs and posing for photo after photo. He charmingly shook hands with, bowed to, or hugged each band member as he introduced them throughout the evening.
The set list mingled favorites that people recognized from the first guitar riff with newer and also less familiar songs, like “Millworker,” which he wrote for a short-lived musical Working based on Studs Terkel’s oral history. The nearly three-hour-long show ended with the encore “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved By You),” in which he let the audience sing the chorus. He and the band followed that with “Shower the People,” letting backup singer Arnold McCuller shine at the end. And for good measure, they ended with a tune that would be right at home at an intimate kitchen concert — the folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme.”
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