James Taylor and his All Star Band
Thompson Boling Arena, Knoxville Tennessee
June 22, 2022
To borrow the title of one of his earlier albums, Dad does indeed love his work. In this case, dad is literally James Taylor, courtesy of the fact that his son Henry is part of the erstwhile ensemble backing him on his current tour.
Given the fact that Taylor rightfully finds equal footing on the highest pantheon of todays’s singer-songwriters — one that includes other such revered luminaries as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson — it’s little wonder he’s able to gather such a strong circle of supporting musicians as part of his All-Star Band. Yet, what is surprising is just how unassuming, self-effacing and charming Taylor remains, even now some 55 years on in a career that’s never faltered while going forward. He plays to the crowd by evoking an intimacy more attuned to a far smaller setting than Knoxville’s sprawling Thompson Boling Arena. Nevertheless, he shares a genuinely humble persona, a personality that retains the absolute humility of one who’s never become jaded by fame and fortune. Well-stocked with anecdotes and a wealth of humorous asides, he’s as personable a performer as any artist on the concert circuit these days, and in many cases, much more so.
We’ll not mention names…
Naturally, with a catalog that includes any number of songs that found a lingering life presence, not only in the roll call of soft rock standards, but within the fabric of life’s soundtrack in general, there was a lot of ground to cover as far as pleasing the fans and followers that came close to selling out the show this past Wednesday night. As a result, most of the material hit on a familiarity factor, some more than others. Even so, several key offerings were borrowed from other people’s catalogs. He opened the show with a sublime take on Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” and then, prior to the final number of his four song encore, offered a celebratory shout-out with Eddie Floyd’s barnburner “Knock on Wood.”
That ability to shift the tone and tempo made for a key element throughout the show. While certain songs tug at the heartstrings — “You Can Close Your Eyes” (played as a duet with his son Henry providing impeccable harmonies and second guitar accompaniment), “Fire and Rain,” "Sweet Baby James,” “Up on the Roof,” and “Carolina In My Mind,” among them — deeper cuts like “Copperline,” “Mexico,” “That’s Why I’m Here,” “Secret of Life” and “The Frozen Man” ring and resonate through a tender emotional bond.
On the other hand, a James Taylor concert is more than soothing songs and lullabies. A blustery and bluesy take on “Steamroller” and a tenacious version of “Traffic Jam” found Taylor opting for a guttural growl while moving about the stage in a demonstrative display of animation and exuberance. So too, given his remarkable cast of support players — one that includes five superb singers (singer/songwriter Andrea Zonn, who also offered some moving violin passages; Dorian Holley, Kate Markowitz, his aforementioned son, Henry Taylor, and longtime singing standby Arnold McCuller — each of whom often threatens to steal the spotlight) — Taylor’s performance is as close as it comes to realizing actual aural perfection. So too, a visual backdrop that alternated scenic settings, a “Sweet Baby James” storybook and, in the case of an old song composed to accompany a 1938 Merrie Melodies cartoon “Katnip Kollege,” that being “As Easy As Falling Off A Log,” it’s a sumptuous sensory extravaganza that’s as seamless as one might ever imagine.
Likewise, Taylor’s frequent shout-outs to “beautiful Knoxville,” as he readily referred to it, underscored the communal connection.
There is, in fact, no artist performing today that’s better equipped to entertain his audience. It’s a credit to his absolute professionalism that he shared the backstory for several songs, while also poking fun at his own perceived imperfections. He lamented the fact that his last album, American Standard, from which the aforementioned “As Easy As Falling Off A Log” was taken, was scheduled for release on the day the country shut down due to Covid. He also drew several laughs when mentioning that the album title itself coincided with the brand name of a leading toilet manufacturer.
That said, there were a couple of stumbles. An opening film montage offering testimonials to Taylor’s career seemed somewhat self-aggrandizing, and unnecessarily so considering that it was hero worship that brought the faithful out to begin with. Likewise a lengthy intermission (“I don’t know why we do it,” Taylor confessed. “All we do is sit backstage and watch the clock.”) was longer than usual due to a technical problem that prevented the turning off of the house lights.
Of course, Taylor has a perfect pedigree and even a minor misstep makes for only a minor detour on a career as ample as his. There again, the credentials belonging to the players in his backing band attest to his superior stature. Most are noted musicians in their own right, and in fact, pianist Larry Goldings, guitarist Michael Landau, bassist and musical director Jimmy Johnson, drummer Steve Gadd, percussionist Michito Sanchez, horn player Lou Marini and keyboardist/horn player Walt Fowler have such a wealth of credits, it would take several hours on Wikipedia to compile a complete list. Together, they provide a formidable presence and a remarkable traveling revue that’s as formidable as any outfit out there.
And yes, in terms of credentials, it does manage to rival one All-Starr Band, otherwise known as Ringo Starr’s backing band.
Then again, perhaps the attitude and aptitude Taylor possesses may be best summed up by another of the songs he sang this night — “That’s Why I’m Here.” In a world tormented by troubles and trepidation, James Taylor is the soothing salve that all of us need. Give him the pedestal at the UN, and chances are he’s be able to sooth more than a few souls and offer even the most irascible individuals opportunity to find common ground through reason and reassurance.
On a local level, it’s nothing less than an evening well spent.