James Taylor is Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s, campfire circles in the New England woods and sun-drenched barbecues in western Massachusetts. He’s Boston’s Fenway Park and preppy college frat parties in the 1980s and acoustic guitar by the Charles River on muggy summer nights. And today, Taylor, American folk-rock hero with over 100 million records sold worldwide and five Grammys to his name, remains, at age 70, one of the most impactful singer-songwriters in the American music canon, a wistful and winsome troubadour with sweeping cross-generational influence. Just ask any of the gangly tweens sitting cross-legged around a bonfire roasting marshmallows at sleepaway camp this summer while singing “You’ve Got a Friend,” the Carole King-penned classic included on “Tapestry” but made famous on Taylor’s 1971 album “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.”
Taylor brought his All-Star Band and special guest Sheryl Crow to Thursday night’s Hollywood Bowl performance, the most recent stop on his summer world tour, which kicked off May 8 in Jacksonville, Fla. and runs through end of July. With a catalog of tunes teetering at the nostalgia-tinged intersection of mirth and melancholy (Taylor famously checked himself into McLean psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Mass. his senior year of high school), the nearly three-hour show was a night of familial warmth and blossoming camaraderie, from the musicians on stage to the fans in the seats, weepy and laughing and dancing at intervals as Taylor performed hits ranging from “Carolina In My Mind” to “You Can Close Your Eyes,” his closing encore number with Crow, stepping in for previously booked guest Bonnie Raitt, who will be rejoining Taylor’s tour following her recovery from an unspecified medical condition and surgery.
In the two hours that Taylor played following Crow’s opener, his All-Star band, a soulfully funky and finely-calibrated ensemble made up of such gifted musicians as Luis Conte (percussion), Walt Fowler (trumpet, keyboards), Andrea Zonn (vocals, violin), Steve Gadd (drums), Jimmy Johnson (bass) and Kate Markowitz (vocals) and Arnold McCuller (vocals), enhanced Taylor’s already salve-like rhythms.
A theatrical backdrop of falling leaves accompanied Taylor on “Walking Man,” evoking those crisp, autumn East Coast days for which the song, off Taylor’s 1974 album of the same name, seems always just right. During ”Steamroller Blues,” Taylor danced across the stage as the song crescendoed into its hardcore bluesy peak, his signature cabbie hat turned to the back. “That got a little out of control,” joked Taylor, flipping his hat back around. After “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” “Handy Man,” “Up on the Roof” (his rendition of the Gerry Goffin and King-penned song made famous by the Drifters) and “Mexico,” with backdrop visuals featuring a vibrant explosion of saturated splatter-painted pinks and blues and greens, Taylor segued into “Something in the Way She Moves,” the romantic ballad he auditioned with in 1968 for Paul McCartney and George Harrison, who would go on to sign Taylor to Apple Records, the first artist signed to the Beatles’ London-based label.
“Pretty much the whole decade is missing,” said Taylor of that period, during which he infamously struggled with an addiction to heroin that nearly killed him, an addiction from which then-wife Carly Simon could not save him. It took, in fact, the fatal overdose of close friend John Belushi to help turn things around for Taylor, who writes about the experience in “That’s Why I’m Here,” off his 1985 studio album of the same name.
“I’m pretty sure I was nervous,” Taylor added of the audition. “I’ve also been told I had a good time.”
In the midst of a set that included “Sweet Baby James,” a “cowboy lullaby” Taylor wrote and recorded for his newborn nephew in 1969, and “Fire and Rain,” the teary 1970 song recounting a friend’s suicide and Taylor’s own experience with depression, failure and fame, a female fan in the crowd called out, “I love you, James Taylor!” In response, Taylor, ever so charming, quipped, “This is so sudden. I love you, too. I can’t explain it, but there it is.”
“Your Smiling Face” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” Taylor’s spin on Marvin Gaye’s 1964 hit single, brought the Bowl audience to its collective feet, while McCuller’s spirit-filled, gospel-inspired solo during “Shower the People” was a mesmerizing showstopper, complete with projected video clips of audience members dancing, singing and clapping.
Crow returned to the stage to pair with Taylor on the peppy, flirty “Mockingbird,” the Inez and Charlie Foxx tune Taylor and Simon re-recorded for Simon’s 1974 studio album “Hotcakes.” And, of course, Taylor made sure to sing “You’ve Got a Friend,” the feel-good anthem of togetherness and love of deacdes gone by, kept alive by those who sing “winter, spring, summer and fall” today.
James Taylor & His All-Star Band returns to the Hollywood Bowl Friday night with special guest Sheryl Crow.