The great expanse of the Hollywood Bowl was an odd match for the folksy style of James Taylor Saturday night. And with no new album to tubthump and thus a certain lack of direction, the ageless troubadour delivered a decidedly mixed bag to a packed house happy to have a sweet-sounding diversion from a troubled world, at least for a night.
“You don’t know what to say at times like these. We really wanted to play, and it isn’t the same without you,” the singer-songwriter said just before launching into the title track from the 1985 album “That’s Why I’m Here.”
Taylor used the album to try to set the tone of the concert, with a buoyant version of “Everyday” to open the show and, later, coming out of “That’s Why” with a mesmerizing take on “Only One.”
But the middle of the first set fell victim to a trio of mismatched new songs, “Frozen Man (clearly the best of the lot),” “4th of July” and “Raised Up Family,” targeted for a new album that Taylor said he’s “slowly working on — we’re in no hurry.”
Likely in the interest of serving up more old favorites, solos were repeatedly snipped before they had the chance to put the show back on course. Axman Michael Landau for instance, found his wings clipped as he tried to air out the jazz-blues informed “Ananas,” (from 1997’s “Hourglass,” the last studio album J.T. has released).
Taylor was more generous with percussionist Luis Conte, who treated the crowd to the highlight of the night — a wild, lilting, free-standing bop that led into syncopated classic “Mexico.” But the momentum didn’t carry through to intermission, undercut by a laid-back “Shower the People” and a fairly tame “Steamroller Blues.”
The second set was better balanced, with Taylor taking the stage alone to begin “Carolina in My Mind” and the whole band joining in by song’s end. The set’s standards included “Fire and Rain,” “You’ve Got a Friend” and “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You),” all showcasing Taylor’s crystalline vocals, still a force of nature.
But it was “Shed a Little Light,” a gospel-tinged number dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr., that drew the biggest response of the night and delivered the mood the battle-fatigued crowd most wanted to embrace.
Perhaps J.T. should have programmed the concert as a revival meeting from the start. The frazzled minions at the Hollywood Bowl would have been more than willing to give testimony throughout the evening before “Sweet Baby James” sent them — singing — back to the freeway and reality.