Just before the music started on Friday night (July 15) at the James Taylor concert at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion, audiences watched short music videos from amateur artists covering songs from the man of the hour. The setup, theme and language used in the videos followed a pattern – they were personal statements addressed to Taylor, explaining why his songs meant so much to so many people.
Taylor achieved enormous success, particularly in the 1970s, with a series of deceptively simple folk songs. Tracks like “Fire & Rain” and “Carolina in My Mind” became part of the folk rock canon, as did his work with Carole King and his cover of her song “You’ve Got a Friend”.
He was playing each of those three songs — and about 20 more — at his first gig in Arkansas since 2019 as a group of music professionals flanked him around the AMP stage.
Next at Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion
Who: “Harmony Tour” by Josh Groban
When: 7 p.m. Thursday July 21
Where: Arkansas Music Pavilion, Rogers
Cost: From $35 plus fees
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or amptickets.com
Taylor’s most popular songs were never ‘drivey’ numbers, and with the exception of the bluesy track ‘Steamroller’, the evening passed very quietly. Chairs were brought out for the lawn, and for the first time at any show I’ve watched at AMP, all patrons were seated at the same time except for those having another drink .
The evening was split into two sets – each around an hour long – with a 25-minute intermission between them. Taylor spent both sets combing through the American songbook while delving into genres such as jazz and blues. His group was up to all the tasks. It featured veteran players such as Steve Gadd (who worked with Simon & Garfunkel, to name just one act) and Lou Marini, a woodwind player famous for his stint in Earth, Wind and Fire and the house band “Saturday Night Live”. The release was a colossal undertaking. In addition to Taylor and the aforementioned band members, the on-stage personnel included four backing vocalists, a guitarist, a bassist, a combination organist/trumpeter, a percussionist, and a keyboardist. The set was otherwise sparse – there was a large tree running above a main video card. The images played on the video card were mostly pastoral – in other words, a good match for Taylor’s songs.
He and the group felt more integrated during the second half, and his voice also seemed stronger. Taylor had fun, that’s for sure. He sometimes strayed and played with his cadence and vocal rhythms almost to self-parody, but never reached that threshold. Maybe because he was always smiling through the songs.
The same could be said for most (seated) audience members. Taylor considers himself a comedian, and he’s told some terrible jokes along the way. He would agree with my assessment of those jokes, telling the crowd that the old jokes were the best.
His interjections between songs provided most of the levity of a slow, methodical evening. And that’s what his audience paid to see – a serious look at old songs that refuse to get old yet.
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