Concert Review: Sunfest 2009, Part III — James Taylor

Sweet Baby James covered all the bases during his Sunfest appearance
Sweet Baby James covered all the bases during his Sunfest appearance

Day 2, Thursday, April 30th: Surprisingly for a singer-songwriter with a 40-year career, James Taylor chose to start his Sunfest set with two songs not written by him and unfamiliar to most of his fans. But these songs (including The Silhouettes’ “Get A Job” and the spiritual “Wasn’t That A Mighty Storm”) were actually selections from his recent cover releases,  entitled, appropriately enough, “Covers” and “Other Covers”.

But after the supportive nod to his latest releases, Taylor immediately plunged into the material the festival audience had come to hear: his impressive catalogue of hits, drawn mostly from his releases in the 1970s. And his versatile eight-person band was more than up to the challenge of supporting him in great renditions of these hits. At the end of “Country Road”, for example, background vocalist Andrea Zonn from Nashville pulled out a violin and transformed the quiet ballad into a bluegrass fiddling jam. Bluesy electric guitar solos by Bob Mann added Claptonesque touches to songs as disparate as “Mexico” and “Steamroller”. And the ballad “Shower The People” was the beneficiary of an passionate improvised vocal coda by Arnold McCuller.

But even without the sterling support, chances are the audience will still have loved this set, simply because of the sheer familiarity of the material performed.  Taylor’s version of Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” is so beloved, the crowd turned it into a spontaneous singalong. And “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) performed during the first encore, had the entire audience clapping along the lanky guitarist’s rendition. Taylor also engaged in gorgeous versions of signature tunes such as “Sweet Baby James”, “Up On The Roof”, “Every Day”, “Carolina on My Mind” and, of course, his best-known ballad, the autobiographical “Fire and Rain.”

One more encore, featuring the haunting “You Can Close Your Eyes” capped off a concert that was, at various times, surprisingly energetic, undoubtedly inspiring and unbelievably warm. Unquestionably one of the highlights of this year’s festival.

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