Last Night in Cleveland: James Taylor


James Taylor and Blossom fit together like summertime and warm weather. That’s why the guy’s become a tradition there. A little early-evening rain may have prevented a few fans from attending Taylor’s concert at Blossom last night, but judging by the still-crowded lawn, it didn’t seem to bother most people. “You people on the lawn, I can’t believe you showed up,” quipped Taylor from the stage. “Thanks for coming -- the lawn nation!” It’s been three years since Taylor took a full band on the road with him. He spent much of that time performing solo (captured on the recent CD/DVD One Man Band) and recording a covers album with the band at his Massachusetts rehearsal barn. The CD will be out later this year, but Taylor previewed a huge chunk of material from it during his two-hour set: Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper’s “Knock on Wood,” Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” and Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman.” One of the most familiar tracks, “Hound Dog,” veered far left of the well-known Elvis Presley version, instead tapping the Big Mama Thornton original for a swamped-up bluesy rework ... Before the show started, one fan talked about a conversation that she had with someone who had seen Taylor’s show recently and had gushed about how every member of the group was pretty famous. Taylor’s 11-member “band of legends” has actually been playing with him for years: drummer Steve Gadd (Eric Clapton, Paul Simon), guitarist Michael Landau (who’s played on more ’80s and ’90s albums than we can count), percussionist Luis Conte (Madonna, Phil Collins), and Cleveland native and longtime backing vocalist Arnold McCuller. Taylor graciously and frequently highlighted the band, and everyone got a chance to stretch out individually. Drummer Gadd uncorked a particularly hard-hitting solo section early in the set, as the band reached the first of many musical boiling points during “Country Road.” Taylor and Landau engaged in a guitar duel during “Steamroller Blues,” borrowed from Springsteen’s playbook. Meanwhile former Saturday Night Live sideman “Blue Lou” Marini snagged the night’s MVP award, playing everything from sax to flute to clarinet. Watching these pros onstage was every bit as enjoyable as listening to the songs they were playing. Taylor’s concerts are always familiar ones (you know what songs he’ll play before he even takes the stage). Yet he’s always able to find ways to freshen up the sets for fans who’ve seen him dozens of times. Last night, the cover songs replaced many standards, like – somewhat surprisingly “Fire and Rain,” and “Up on the Roof.” Still, he found room for “Sweet Baby James,” which he said he wrote for a nephew who shared his name. The song is a timeless one – which suits Taylor, who looks and sounds pretty much like he did 20 years ago. --Matt Wardlaw


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