James Taylor & His All-Star Band w/ Jackson Browne: Wright State Nutter Center; Dayton, OH – Wednesday, August 4, 2021
Given the boyish grin on 73-year-old James Taylor’s face throughout his 90 minute set in front of the mostly full Nutter Center arena on Wednesday night, it would be hard to say who was the happiest to have live music concerts return, the singer-songwriter or his committed fanbase in the audience. It’s noteworthy that Taylor’s big break as a folk troubadour came with his sophomore album in 1970, which included the classic title track lullaby, “Sweet Baby James,” and perennial oldies radio highlight, “Fire and Rain.” By the late 70’s, Taylor had cultivated a more sophisticated pop sound with hits like “Shower the People” and “Your Smiling Face,” but rather than deliver a long string of his hits from the last five decades, Taylor’s song choices reflected a desire to emphasize his songwriting craft, leaning to some of his deep tracks.
Before Taylor and his band were revealed behind a sheet that allowed for projection of a brief film of various people covering some of Taylor’s songs and saying how much his music has touched their lives, followed by a fiddle solo by bandmember Andrea Zonn that revealing a connection between Irish music and that from the rural America. That fed very nicely into “Country Road,” featuring Taylor’s full ensemble and revealing the large projection screen and movable lights that would contribute to the vibe on stage throughout the production. As in year’s past, Taylor concludes that piece with some vocal vamping which on this night had the added funk of drummer Steve Gadd. Then after expressing gratitude for the audience showing up to make a tour like this possible, Taylor suggested that at his age he’d considered retiring from live touring but said that after the pandemic shut-down that forced the postponement of this show’s date by more than a year, he’d concluded that “I’d really miss it a lot if I had to do without it.”
Then pulling up a stool and finger-picking his acoustic guitar with inimitable style he introduced the little-known song, “That’s Why I’m Here,” explaining that the second verse was written for comedian John Belushi at the time of his premature death. He followed that with “Copperline,” a long-time concert favorite that featured more of Zonn’s fine violin playing, and then the rarer “Never Die Young,” which Taylor said was a selection inspired by the virus. “Mexico,” another classic fan favorite that shows up on lots of Taylor “best of” and “live” albums, got a big production treatment as the raucous Latin flavored pop song featured an extended percussion solo from Michito Sanchez, while colorful flags flew on the backdrop.
Taylor than returned to a couple lovely numbers from the deep tracks category, “You Make It Easy,” and “Line ‘Em Up,” with its lyric about Nixon’s criminal Presidency. At this point, Taylor traded in his standard acoustic for an electric guitar, pausing to give a shout out to Chuck Berry, saying that the electric guitar had become synonymous with “our generation.” Taylor led his band into the bluesy “Chili Dog,” but the song segued pretty quickly into a long-time favorite of Taylor’s concerts, “Steamroller Blues.” The band dug in especially hard here, grinding the slower blues rhythm with intensity, and strong solos from Blues Brothers’ veteran “Blue Lou” Marini on sax, Hammond organ by Young, and at the end some blazing guitar interaction with Mitch Laudau, who fell to his knees, egged on by Taylor and bassist Jimmy Johnson. Taylor has always used live performance to show off his bluesier soul singer side, and back in the day “Steamroller” offered a prime opportunity to let loose with a string of swear-words during a long vocal vamp near the song’s climax. But over the decades as parents started bringing their children to his shows, Taylor moved to less distinguishable words, and tended to skat sounds the tended to rhyme with favored curse words… a curious, often enjoyable trait that showed up near the end of several numbers on Wednesday night.
Then, by way of mentioning his last album, 2020’s “American Standards,” which was originally mailed out to everyone who bought at concert ticket for the original show date, Taylor acknowledged that due to the pandemic the album was released in February and just “fell down a deep well, disappearing from view,” Taylor introduced “Easy As Rolling Off A Log,” perhaps the least recognizable track on that album of covers. Taylor said he learned the song from a Warner Bros. cartoon from the 1930s titled “Katnip Kollege,” and the song had a jazzy, swing feel and benefitted from “Blue Lou’s” era-worthy clarinet solo, while the original cartoon played on the big screen.
But then, Taylor sat down on his stool, rolled up his sleeves, and pulled his acoustic close and got down to the business that brought out his fans, starting out with his namesake lullaby, “Sweet Baby James,” you could begin the feel the crowd singing quietly along about the “deep greens and blues” and how “singing works just fine for me.” That trend got turned up a notch for a lovely rendering of “Fire and Rain,” which featured a lovely acoustic solo from Landau. “Carolina In My Mind” followed, a song which dates all the way back to Taylor’s 1968 debut for Apple Records, as he was the first American signed to the Beatles’ fledgling label. McCartney and Harrison were part of the “holy host of others standing around me,” who sang uncredited on the original recording. Taylor & Co. closed out the set proper with two big pop hits, “Shower The People” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”, which benefitted nicely from the strong brass feel of Marini on sax and Walt Flower on trumpet, and a big, strong finish centered on the explosive drum work of Gadd.
The band returned to encore with one of Taylor’s most powerful works, “Shed a Little Light,” a tribute to the life and work of Martin Luther King. Here, Taylor started to a cappella vocal intro surrounded by the five backing vocalist who had been providing the wall of harmony choral treatment throughout the show, Zonn, Kate Markowitz, Dorian Holley, long-time Taylor band favorite Arnold McCuller, and Taylor’s 20 year old son, Henry. Of course, the lengthy mid-section of that song takes us to church with the soulful R&B vibe which turned McCuller loose for a powerful vocal solo, before returning again to the voices alone in rich choral harmony, with Taylor’s warm recognizable tenor out front.
For the final two encores, Taylor brought Jackson Browne back to the stage, as they played one of Browne’s earliest hits, written with The Eagles’ Glenn Frey, “Take It Easy,” with Taylor’s band emphasizing the country vibe in the track with solos on guitar and violin by Landau and Zonn. Then they closed out the fun evening with the 50 year old classic by Carole King, “You’ve Got a Friend,” which was a hit for both King and Taylor. As Taylor and Browne and Taylor’s massive entourage stood arm and arm to bow, the two veteran rockers were both beaming, grateful after all this time to be able to bring their music back to the stage and play for their fans. The experience, as is often the case at Taylor’s shows, the music and the event center around a message of friendship, community, and the hope for a better world, values rooted in the “peace & love” movement in the 60’s, that spawned both of these veteran artists.
For his part, Browne hit the stage for his hour long opening set with as much of an all-star band as Taylor had advertised, most noteworthy being the two guitarists with whom Browne recorded his brand new studio album, “Downhill From Everywhere,” much in demand lap steel guitarist Greg Leisz, and Val McCallum who I last saw playing in Sheryl Crow’s band. Fitting for one of the first tours after the shut-down of the pandemic, Browne and company opened with the strong rocker, “I’m Alive,” with Browne on acoustic guitar and in excellent voice with fine harmony vocals from keyboardist Jeff Young. “The Long Way Around” followed, another rocker with soulful Gospel vocal harmonies from Chavonne Stewart and Aretha Mills.
Someone had already called out for the classic track, “Fountain of Sorrow,” so Browne wasted no time getting to one of his signature hits, moving to the piano but playing the song with a faster upbeat tempo than expected. It’s funny, I had read a review of the tour from the daily paper from Pittsburgh where they had played the night before, where the critic had called him “one of the dullest performers in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” and suggested that while Browne “still has pleasant pipes, and all the playing is (well) mannered and precise, the band even seemed a little bored.” It’s been decades since I’ve seen Browne perform, but while his music is serious and often somber in tone, I’ve never found it boring. I can’t guarantee that Browne or his band read the same review I did, but on Wednesday night, they were on fire, and rock with intentionality, talent, and spark. A piano player Jason Crosby slid into place after the piano kicks off the closing stanza, and Browne moved to acoustic guitar and sang the last verse from mid-stage before McCallum finished the tune with a blazing guitar solo attuned to the punchy rhythms of veteran Browne bassist Bob Glaub and drummer Marcio Lewak.
For the playing of “Downhill From Everywhere,” both McCallum and Leisz were on electric guitars, leaning heavily on what sounded like wah-wah pedals to give the environmental rocker an extra bit of punch. They followed with two more from the fine new album, the catchy pop/rock single, “Cleveland Heart,” and then Browne brought the Stewart and Mills up front to share in the Gospel leaning vocals for “Justice Is Real.” Then going all the way back to Browne’s 1972 eponymously titled debut (which I always thought was titled “Saturate Before Using” because of those words on the album cover), Browne moved back to the piano for another up tempo version of his classic “Doctor My Eyes,” and then after the verses, as I remember for Browne’s tours with great musicians in the 70’s, he left lots of room for big solos from his able stable of players.
Browne stayed at the piano for “Late For the Sky,” the title track of his 1974 album, with the album photo projected on the screen above the stage, this time the stately ballad was played slower to fit the mood of the piece. Then James Taylor joined Browne on stage for a duet on “The Pretender,” trading the vocals back and forth, but harmonizing on the line, “Get up and do it again.” On Wednesday night, the female background singers responded at the appropriate time with “get it up again,” which cracked me up like I was hearing it for the last time, but my wife assured me that lyric was always part of the song. As Taylor left the stage to prepare for his headlining set, Browne, said “’scuse me, I’m going to pinch myself,” thanking the crowd again for coming out after the long 16-month pandemic shutdown.
Then to cap off, Browne’s set the band dove in to “Running On Empty,” again the title track of that classic, mostly live album, with Leisz on lap steel playing all the expected David Lindley parts, and he and McCullum pushing the band to the songs necessary ecstatic heights. A triumph of an opening set from the 72 year old, who somehow manages to still have that classic hairstyle.
It was a strange, yet lovely thing to be back in a crowd at a live show. We wore our masks, as did about 15% of the crowd, which is worrying with our state in a red zone and news of the rampant spread of the Delta variant of the COVID virus. Here’s hoping folk decide to embrace the vaccine as the way to escape this challenging pandemic, and that we can get out to live shows in the months and years ahead. On this night, the two sets from these veterans of LA folk rock was like a breath of fresh air.
-Review by Brian Q. Newcomb