JT and JB: Rock ‘n’ roll and sensible shoes

by | Oct 29, 2021 | Arts and Entertainment | 1 comment

Diane and I ran up to Portland on a rainy Monday to see James Taylor and Jackson Browne in concert. We had been waiting nearly two years to claim our “Will Call” tickets at the Moda Center — the concert originally was scheduled for early 2020, but you know about that. The show had been rescheduled for earlier this year, but you know about that too. But Monday night, in front of what looked like a full house of masked fans wearing mostly sensible shoes, the two finally took the stage.

Browne, of course, opened — although he’s been writing and recording new material since his heydays in the 1970s and 1980s, he hasn’t been able to maintain as high a profile as Taylor. And once the shock wore off from seeing the once-baby-faced singer-songwriter now rocking a grizzled Jon Stewart look, we were able to focus on the songs, many of which have aged very well indeed. “Doctor My Eyes,” for example, Browne’s first big hit, still feels as timely as before, and also served as a launching pad for a scorching solo from crackerjack guitarist Val McCallum.

Browne appears to be switching out his setlist a bit as this tour goes on: He’s added “Somebody’s Baby,” his biggest hit, to the show (it seems perverse that it wasn’t on the set list at earlier dates) and also features three songs from his new album; two of them, “Downhill from Everywhere” and “The Dreamer,” sounded good in the live show. The third, “Until Justice is Real,” is well-meaning but not as effective. To his credit, Taylor came out to join Browne on “The Pretender” and stuck around to sing backup on “Running on Empty,” maybe Browne’s best song.

Considering the power and punch of Browne’s band, I wanted to hear live versions of “Boulevard” and “Lawyers in Love,” but no such luck.

Monday’s show marked the sixth time we’ve seen Taylor, and so we know what to expect: A carefully curated selection of really good songs played with first-rate musicianship (propelled, in this case, by Steve Gadd’s fabulous drumming) and Taylor’s sly patter: “I hope that looked spontaneous,” he cracked after an elaborate pantomime of trying to persuade his band to play just one more song.

Two big differences in this show: Taylor brought along an unusually large array of musicians on this tour, including five backup singers. (Taylor regular Arnold McCuller is along for this ride, along with Andrea Zann, Kate Markowitz, Dorian Holley and Henry Taylor, James’ son; the two share a lovely moment at the very end of the show, duetting on “You Can Close Your Eyes.”) It makes for 13 musicians total, including Taylor stalwarts “Blue” Lou Marini on saxophone, bassist Jimmy Johnson, guitarist Michael Landau and keyboardist Larry Goldings. Taylor isn’t joking when he bills this as his “All-Star Band.” (Just for fun, check out this 1978 video of Steve Martin performing “King Tut” on “Saturday Night Live” and see if you pick out Marini’s subtle sax solo; this was 43 years ago, and this guy still is blowing hard.)

But I thought Gadd was the musical MVP; I’m sure I’ve seen him before with Taylor’s band, but on Monday night, he seemed to play with uncommon power and precision, even by his standards. “Country Road” remains a showcase for power drumming, and his playing on “Shower the People” seemed to kick that chestnut into another gear entirely. Gadd, by the way, is 76 years old. He was the stuff of legend even back in the 1970s, when he was ripping off the classic drum solo in “Aja.” That was 44 years ago. (All in all, this was a pretty good night for rockers in their 70s — both Taylor and Browne are 73 now.)

The other big difference: This was the most visually appealing Taylor show we’ve seen, with a lovely set designed to showcase some nifty 3-D video effects (although the big screen went blank near the end of the show.) The screen was handy when Taylor wanted to show the cartoon “Katnip Kollege,” the 1938 Warner Bros. cartoon that featured “Easy as Rolling Off a Log,” a song Taylor covered on his “American Standard” album. The most ingenious touch, however, was relatively low-tech: Hanging above the stage were 30 or so lights, the shape and size of big leaves, that could change colors and could be lowered or raised as a song progressed. (In a particularly smart touch, the lights lined up as Taylor performed “Line Them Up.”)

Now, it’s always fun to gripe a bit about the song selection — and maybe it says something that the only new addition on the setlist (“Easy as Rolling Off a Log”) dates back to 1937. But you have to think that fans insist on hearing certain songs during every tour: “Sweet Baby James,” “Country Road,” “Mexico,” “Steamroller” (although Taylor now seems to be singing almost entirely nonsense lyrics to this one, which is fine), “Fire and Rain,” “Shower the People,” “Shed a Little Light,” “Carolina on My Mind,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You,” “You’ve Got a Friend” — these probably are mandatory for every concert. The encores, including “Take It Easy” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” both with Browne, were appropriate. That leaves just a handful of slots for other songs, especially on a double bill like this. And I was happy to hear “You Make It Easy,” one of his finest songs, “Line Them Up,” which I think is a little underrated in the Taylor catalog, and “That’s Why I’m Here,” which is certainly appropriate for the relaunch of live concerts. But “Copperline” is sounding a little tired to my ears; I would have considered swapping it out with another track from “American Standard,” perhaps “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” which I suspect would play well in concert. But, really, one minor gripe from a 17-song setlist? That is a minor gripe, indeed. Will we shell out for tickets to see JT a seventh time? Yes.

Even if it means we have to drive to Portland in the rain.

1 Comment

  1. Norman Carey Art

    Nice review Mike..


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