Gig review: James Taylor and His All-Star Band with Bonnie Raitt at First Direct Arena, Leeds

There aren't many bona-fide singer-songwriter stars left like James Taylor.
James Taylor and Bonnie RaittJames Taylor and Bonnie Raitt
James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt

The mantle of the introspective 70s troubadour has taken some hits in recent years; Neil Diamond has been forced off the road with Parkinson’s disease, while Paul Simon wraps up his live career in September. Yet the Massachusetts man remains strong; a genteel, wisecracking figure at 70, newsboy cap in hand and a sparkle still in his eye after 50 years in the game.

On the last of a three-night headline run on British shores, at Leeds’s First Direct Arena, he delivers a near-two hour performance that pays testament to his stature, a legacy embellished in an introductory video montage of admirers featuring David Crosby and Barack Obama among others. Across a 20-song set, he courts melancholy like a seasoned pro – though perhaps rarely has that emotion glided with such a smooth veneer onstage.

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It takes time for Taylor to find his stride – an opening run including the saccharine Sunny Skies is less entertaining than the concurrent sight-gags, such as the phrase HELP ME scrawled on his guitar – but once Up on the Roof (“Carole King wrote this one for The Drifters in 1803,” he quips) soars to its triumphant crescendo half-an-hour in, he never looks back.

His work is textbook easy-listening, and most songs come coached in soft-rock rhythms; but his well-honed All-Star Band flex their muscles throughout to deliver the goods. Steamroller conjures up jazz-flecked barroom blues, while Mexico delivers a mariachi-country shuffle with sombreros. D

on’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight provides some soul-folk weepiness, underpinned by a mournful sax solo from Blue Lou Marini himself, famously of the Blues Brothers.

Taylor is the lynchpin though and is at his most arresting when the onus is on him. A one-two of Sweet Baby James and Fire and Rain is met with rapturous applause that seemingly lasts forever; Handy Man, introduced as “a lovely song about a… male prostitute” with a wink, tugs on the heartstrings.

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By the time support act Bonnie Raitt joins him for a boisterous encore of Johnny B. Goode, his smile lights up the whole crowd. After a blindingly pretty You’ve Got a Friend, the pair huddle alone around a microphone for You Can Close Your Eyes, like teenagers at a campfire; they depart afterwards, hand in hand, with the reminder that the old ways can still light up the night like they used to.