When James Taylor first emerged as a performer in the early ’70s, he was the very model of the guitar-strumming solitary man, spinning his introspective, sometimes tortured tales in lone-wolf fashion. As the years went on, Taylor’s songs grew considerably brighter and he became more social as a performer, a trait that didn’t always work in his favor. At this Gotham gig, the low-key troubadour made a point of getting back to his roots.
It was not so much in the perf’s typically affable mood, but in the fact that much of it was undertaken all but solo, a context he hadn’t explored onstage for ages. At times, Taylor was augmented by keyboardist Larry Goldings — whose fluid playing meshed particularly well with Taylor’s picking on a poignant “Sweet Baby James” — but the two-hour set was most affecting when Taylor was, in effect, stripped bare, as on a vulnerable opening rendition of “Something in the Way She Moves.”
Taylor and Golding bobbed and weaved around one another with the ease of longtime sparring partners, with the sideman daubing “Carolina in My Mind” with misty harmonium and festooning “Steamroller” with roadhouse-ready piano vamping.
While the two men were the only physical entities onstage, Taylor did draw in other elements from time to time — most successfully on “Slap Leather,” where he manipulated a Rube Goldberg-styled percussive contraption that imparted something of a Tom Waits-ish feel to the surprisingly aggressive tune. The use of taped choral backing vocals — appended to “Shower the People” — was markedly less winning, conveying more technical precision than personality.
Taylor made up for that shortfall, however, with a string of long — sometimes overlong — between-song anecdotes explaining songs or (in one of the more unscripted interludes) addressing the just-completed election and the subsequent rebuilding of “a beautiful blue America.”
In a more divided house, that could have been seen as a provocation, but in this setting, it — like most of Taylor’s musings — was simply a way to further an already strong bond between aud and performer.