James Taylor earns his soul-man bona fides
by Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass., June 25, 2003) – By the end of the sold-out show at Tanglewood on Tuesday night, James Taylor’s “October Road” tour seemed more like the James Taylor Memphis Soul Revue, which was just fine with the enthusiastic crowd that had rushed the stage, crowding the aisles and behaving in a most un-Tanglewood-like manner as soon as Taylor launched into Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).”

Credit Taylor for calming the audience down at the very end with his signature send-off song, “Sweet Baby James,” and prefacing it with a recommendation that listeners come back during the symphony season to hear some of the classical fare. Maybe a few will, but in any case, Taylor’s gesture bespoke the class act that he is.

He is and always has been also something of a soul man, and in a program of songs and arrangements considerably reworked from past years, he mined his catalog for opportunities to explore the jazzier, bluesier and more Latin-influenced elements of his work.

Aided in large part by a band set up to juice his material in these directions, Taylor kicked off the concert with a samba-fied “First of May,” a showcase for drummer Steve Gadd and percussionist Luis Conte, as well as for Taylor’s own considerable prowess at whistling. Other songs drawing on a Spanish tinge included “Mexico,” which made a musical stop in Havana on its way to Tijuana, and “Whenever You’re Ready,” a spicy bit of Brazilian-influenced pop.

Taylor got downright jazzy on “Mean Old Man,” one of several numbers he performed off last year’s terrific “October Road” album, singing this classic-pop style number without his guitar and with stripped-down jazz trio backing by Gadd, pianist Larry Goldings and guitarist Michael Landau. Landau and Goldings also colored “Steamroller Blues,” which began as a psychedelic, electric blues before morphing into soul-jazz infused by Goldings’ Hammond organ.

The musicians also helped Taylor explore new nuances of desperation in a trippy, strung-out arrangement of “Fire and Rain,” before which as always at Tanglewood Taylor paid tribute to the community at Austen Riggs in Stockbridge, where he finished writing the song while receiving treatment for the excesses of rock ‘n’ roll indulgence in the late-1960s.

The two-man horn section of Walt Fowler and the legendary Lou Marini, who has played with everyone from Blood, Sweat and Tears to The Band to the Blues Brothers, punched up songs and took them to New Orleans and to Motown, particularly Taylor’s new single, “Bittersweet,” built on a riff from the Temptations’ “My Girl,” which segued into “Stop Thinkin’ ‘Bout That.”

Not that Taylor totally overlooked his acoustic, country-folk side by any means. Carmella Ramsey’s fiddle lent “Copperline” an Appalachian feel, and in his mind and in song Taylor went to Carolina.

But the arc of the show was more typified by the one-two-three punch of “Mexico,” “Your Smilin’ Face” and a seemingly impromptu version of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” that figuratively brought down the curtain on the first encore, fully earning Taylor his bona fides as a soul man.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 26, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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