by Kelley Bass
April 29, Verizon Arena
“This is a really big room you have here,” James Taylor noted early in his April 29 concert at Verizon Arena. But then he proceeded to perform and relate to the crowd like he was in a tiny coffeehouse. This was an intimate concert even with 6,863 in attendance; arena officials unexpectedly had to open one end of the upper bowl and sell more tickets when demand exceeded intended supply.
Taylor is in the Rock’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, but he really doesn’t rock. He croons, he strums, he commands everyone’s full attention as one of popular music’s quintessential singer/songwriters. Interesting, too, while he is also a member of the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, many of his big hits were written and popularized by others. Those include three he did at Verizon — “Every Day,” the Buddy Holly hit that opened the show; “Up on the Roof,” originally by the Drifters, and “How Sweet It Is,” the 1975 Marvin Gaye tune that closed the second set — and one he oddly didn’t: “You’ve Got a Friend,” the Carole King song that remains one of JT’s biggest hits.
The larger-than-expected crowd is clear proof of Taylor’s staying power. Since he really hit the big-time with “Sweet Baby James” in 1970, Taylor has almost always been a big seller — topping the 1 million mark with albums earlier this century that included no radio hits. And, of course, releasing 22 albums over 42 years also means you’re not going to be able to play everything fans want to hear.
Some might have wondered why no “Handy Man” (a Grammy winner) or “Mockingbird,” when solid non-hits like “Angry Blues,” “Line ’Em Up,” “Cowboy” and “Jump Up” made the set. But JT is not a jukebox, and it’s not realistic to expect every concert to be a greatest hits album. (Speaking of which, of the 12 songs on his 1976 “Greatest Hits” album — which got “diamond” status for selling more than 10 million copies — he played nine at Verizon).
Another thing besides scads of material being a pop icon for 40-plus years will get you? The ability to recruit a fabulous band. This group was billed as “His Legendary Band,” and while not household names, these musicians were top-notch. Very tasty guitar work by Mike Landau, steady bass from Jimmy Johnson and a rock-solid performance from Chad Wackerman on drums and Luis Conte on all manner of percussion highlighted the night, meshing perfectly with Taylor’s patented straightforward, pleasant, melodic style.
But what really set this band apart were the four back-up singers, who were used in every imaginable configuration — all, none or various combinations. Arnold McCuller has been touring with Taylor for more than 30 years, and his work on “Shower the People” was a goose bump-generating run of vocal gymnastics. Andrea Zahn played fiddle as well as sang, and she was there solo to support JT on a few numbers. And the predictable highlight of the night — the still gut-wrenching “Fire and Rain” — came with no back-up singing help and little in the way of instrumentation beyond Taylor’s strumming.
There’s nothing nearly so weighty or particularly significant about “Smiling Face” or “Mexico,” but JT can pull off sweet little ditties like those two mid-’70s hits better than almost anyone. It’s hard not to like James Taylor — particularly in concert. It’s doubtful any of the nearly 7,000 on hand for his latest concert here would disagree.