There aren’t many bona-fide singer-songwriter stars left like James Taylor.
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.
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.
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.