James Taylor isn’t the only pop superstar with the ability to make a huge venue seem intimate, but as his former spouse might put it, nobody does it better. For about 2 1/2 high-energy, good-natured hours Sunday night, Taylor moved easily among the testimonial ballads that made him a ’70s icon (“Sweet Baby James,””Fire and Rain”) to the self-parodying blues and decent R&B covers (“Steamroller Blues,””How Sweet It Is”) and the recent work that has grown more outwardly thematic (“New Hymn” and “Copperline”).
A sellout crowd that obviously had come of age with this music mouthed most of the lyrics and hooted its approval after every number. As he has for 25 years , Taylor delivered an impeccable set, propelled this time by Michael Landau’s infrequent but sinuous guitar riffs and a smooth, supportive quartet of vocalists.
Having seen Taylor master every size of venue over the years, it’s a comfort that he’s in such great form. The concert covered much of the material in Taylor’s “Live” collection (Columbia).
But this first live album is a surprising disappointment, falling flat on the ear; surprising because the concerts he has taped for the Public Broadcasting Service have so wonderfully conveyed both his own great taste and the effect his plaintive tenor and unmistakable guitar style have on audiences.
Taylor is a generous performer, shaking hands with his players, leaping and prowling about and doing a pretty good job of suggesting that he’s having as good a time as we are.
It’s all extremely polished: When audience members shouted out song titles, he parried with a mock-scolding look and held up the song list scrawled on a chalkboard. He was not to be swayed, but confident that no one would be disappointed, and he was right.
The concert — one of four to benefit Babies Hospital in Manhattan and several other charities — was as slick as Don Carone’s annoying computerized lighting effects — particularly for a singer-songwriter who used to play “Over the Rainbow” in 2/4 time and slip some of his brother Livingston’s work into concerts for an extra surprise. There were no surprises Sunday night, and that was just fine.