Legendary singer-songwriter James Taylor performed at the Hippodrome Wednesday night. Reporter Nick Madigan sends in this review.
James Taylor smiles when he sings.
Thousands of performances, decades of applause and countless honors have not dimmed Taylor’s deep-seated love for what he does. When he steps up to a microphone, guitar in hand, before a crowd of upturned faces, he opens his heart and his face softens, beaming.
“Shower the people you love with love, show them the way that you feel,” he sang Wednesday night at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre, perfectly encapsulating the emotional compass of his show.
The crowd in the sold-out auditorium sang along softly, swaying to the gentle tune, united in the notion that “things are going to be much better if you only will.”
Beyond the consistent emotional bond with his audience, the most striking thing about Taylor is how little he has changed his approach to singing and performing over the span of more than four decades since he began.
Although he is backed by a first-rate band and a choir of four, he still manages to convey a sense of sticking to the basic approach of man, guitar, melody and lyric. Taylor is a master of the effortless weaving of the American tale, and his craft needs no fancy footwork for its execution.
On stage, he creates intimacy not only by striking emotive chords but through humor. “I don’t like this song much – it’s not my favorite,” he deadpanned as he introduced “Angry Blues,” which has uncharacteristically bleak lyrics. “One thing you can say about this song – you feel better when it’s over.”
Then, when it was, he said, “There, I feel better now. You can’t love ’em all.” The crowd ate it up.
Taylor’s beguiling sense of wonder extends to the recounting of his earliest days as a singer and his first record deal, with The Beatles’ Apple label. He described auditioning for George Harrison and Paul McCartney in 1968 as a nerve-wracking “out-of-body experience,” but one that gave him his first big break.
The song he performed that day, “Something in the Way She Moves” – which, incidentally, later inspired one of Harrison’s biggest hits – was probably the best song, Taylor said, that he had written up to that point. “The ones that came before this were pretty terrible,” he told the Baltimore crowd, as he picked the tune’s first notes to a rain of applause.
Unsurprisingly, Taylor is modest about his talent for composing the approximately 150 songs that have defined his life. “It’s a mystery to me where they come from,” he said. “I don’t really write songs – I’m just the first person to hear them.” Their themes rarely vary, he went on, from yearnings for home (“Carolina In My Mind”) to the wanderlust of the road (“My Traveling Star”), with the occasional sharply observed commentary on the world’s peculiarities.
For the latter category, he delivered a long, wry introduction to “Line ’em Up,” a song about the final moments of Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974, when the disgraced leader walked to a helicopter as the world watched, shaking hands “perhaps for the first time” with a long row of White House employees.
“Nixon didn’t have a great walk,” Taylor said, comparing it to the gait of a Cro-Magnon man “climbing out of the ooze.”
Just as Nixon and his wily co-conspirators became emblems of negativity and corruption in the 1970’s and the years that followed, so did Taylor and others of his ilk become synonymous with the optimism and creativity of the age and the power of persistent talent.
Taylor is an American institution in the manner of Paul Simon and Bob Dylan – no other country could have produced him, and none but those three artists could have paid so enduring an homage to the American musical idiom.
Nick Madigan is a staff reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He last reviewed Neil Young for the blog.
Photo: James Taylor performing at the ACM Awards in April