July 4, 2015
Review and photos by Seth Rogovoy
(LENOX, Mass.) – Once upon a time, as hard as it might be to believe, the Fourth of July at Tanglewood was not synonymous with a James Taylor concert and love-fest. But with a few exceptions, for the past decade or so, it has pretty much become an annual Berkshire ritual. And this past Saturday’s concert was as much of a love-fest as any, both on the stage and in the crowd, as Taylor pitched his program in considerable part to songs of love, and as the audience responded in kind, showering the singer-songwriter with love and affection in return.
Taylor made the onstage love tangible, with his effusive praise and physical affection toward many of his longstanding musicians, who comprise one of the best touring bands in popular music. And with the enhanced role of Taylor’s son, Henry, as a backup vocalist and all-around cheerleader, along with Taylor’s wife, Kim, as part of the chorus – which still includes the stellar Kate Markowitz, Arnold McCuller and Andrea Zonn – the show is becoming more of an all-around family affair. Dad, it seems, really does love his work.
The connection of Taylor to the Berkshires of course goes back many decades and is canonized in some of his earliest songs, by implication his quintessential number, “Fire and Rain,” and overtly in the title track to the album that made him a household name, “Sweet Baby James,” both numbers which he played at Tanglewood on Saturday night. While Taylor sticks closely to the recorded versions of his tunes, he’s not afraid to mine them for deeper or different colors or nuances. This time around, the lilting bounce of “Fire and Rain” was removed, the song was taken a bit slower, and the mood was a bit darker and more true to the anguish at the heart of the number that he wrote in 1969 while in residence at Austen Riggs Center just up the road.
Taylor opened up another of his early tunes and audience favorites, “Country Road,” adding a blues rap about two-thirds of the way through and in a sense doing the opposite of what he did with “Fire and Rain,” turning the easygoing ode into a rock anthem. One also noted that he ended the tune on a single long, drawn out note that was the first of many times during the show that Taylor’s late-in-life vocal training was made manifest.
He also flaunted his vocal expertise in a version of “Bartender’s Blues,” a song he wrote as an homage to country singer George Jones. Taylor subtly adopted Jones’s tone and phrasing in the number, evincing great control over Jones’s achy, bent country blue notes.
Fifty minutes into a mostly mellow first set Taylor and band offered a rousing version of one of his all-time greatest hits, “Your Smilin’ Face,” before settling back into a gentler mood, closing the first act with “Shed a Little Light,” which was invested with greater spirituality and political import in light of the horrible racist incidents our nation has been experiencing these past few months. Taylor and vocalists turned it into a rousing hymn and prayer, and the audience responded by jumping to its collective feet and taking it to church.
The second set after intermission likewise featured a variety of audience favorites (“Sweet Baby James,” “Steamroller Blues”), deep catalog numbers, and new songs. Overall, Taylor peppered the program with a half-dozen or so selections from his brand-new album, “Before This World,” his first full-length recording to land at number one on Billboard’s album chart, and in its first week, no less. (You can view a very relaxed, informal Taylor saying “Thank you” to his fans in this YouTube video.)
Over the years, Taylor’s minor hit song “Mexico” has played an increasingly major role in his concerts, and this year’s arrangement featured the amazing two-man horn section of saxophonist Lou Marini and trumpeter Walt Fowler donning Mexican hats and playing mariachi style, as well as an extended percussion solo by Latin percussion wizard Luis Conte. This was also one of several numbers featuring Henry Taylor as a confident backup vocalist seemingly born to be at ease onstage, exhibiting a level of confidence, poise, and comfort that belies his age of 14.
Taylor closed the main set with a rocking rendition of his hit remake of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” and then returned with the band in full R&B mode with his version of Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood.” A few more love songs, and then he called it a night, and the fireworks over Stockbridge Bowl concluded this collective ritual marking another unofficial beginning of summer in the Berkshires.