How sweet it is ... again

In my concert experiences, it's almost always better the second time.

That was the case last night as Kates and I left the kiddos with a friend and trekked to Kansas City to see the one-and-only James Taylor at the famed Starlight Theatre. It was our first outing post-Faye, but her and Phoebe were well-behaved and Kates and I thoroughly enjoyed a night as adults on our own.

The first time we saw James Taylor, back in Chicago, Phoebe and Faye were nowhere on the horizon – nor was moving away from Chicagoland. Yet, we were running late the night and barely skirted into our seats before the show started. And afterward, I remember feeling slightly disappointed by the singer-songwriter’s song selection that night. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great show – it’s James Taylor! But I wanted more.

Last night, I was fulfilled.

Ninety-five degrees and sunny, Taylor arrived on the stage to a standing ovation and then, as he did in Chicago, took a few moments to greet fans in the front rows and sign autographs. Then, with an accomplished 11-piece band behind him, Taylor fired up a 25-song concert that covered his array of hits while moving back and forth from rocking blues to lovely serenades. (On a sidenote, the security presence was noticeable at the entrance to the park and at the ticket gates after what happened in Colorado Friday night.)

Bill Brownlee put it well in his review for The Kansas City Star … 
Drawing on material culled from over four decades of recordings that have made him a revered figure among millions of baby boomers, the masterful singer-songwriter entertained and uplifted fans for over two engaging hours. His elegant sensibility was as refreshing as a bottomless glass of cool water on a steamy July evening.

The innocuous blandness that weakens much of Taylor’s work was largely absent during his 25-song performance. He opened the show with a clever feint. “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On the Jukebox” is a song about a weary man lacking inspiration. Taylor, by contrast, seemed wholly energized. He danced like a carefree fool on “Sun On the Moon” and chatted about his inspirations for classic material like “Sweet Baby James.”

When he pulled out “Carolina in my Mind” – after telling the story of how he grew up a huge Beatles fan recorded his original version for Apple records – Kates and I looked at each other, both with chills running through our spine. There’s nothing like when a voice you admire so greatly and have heard on the stereo countless times comes alive, and Taylor performed the song wonderfully, with a quartet of backing vocalists delivering some golden harmonies.

As usual my amateur video doesn't begin to do it justice.

Country Road” featured a rocking guitar solo and some commanding drums. “God Have Mercy on the Frozen Man” featured flute and brass. “Handyman,” one of my guilty pleasures in Taylor’s catalog, featured Lou Marini on saxophone. And “Steamroller” included some dazzling instrumental jams on trumpet, organ and guitar.

Taylor’s backing band was simply superb. It featured percussionist Luis Conte, who’s played with Madonna and Phil Collins. Drummer Steve Gadd has played with a range of greats from Paul McCartney to Bon Jovi and on Steely Dan's classic Aja album and Simon & Garfunkel's famed Concert in Central Park. There was Grammy-nominated jazz keyboardist Larry Goldings had played with Norah Jones and John Mayer. Marini was a member of the original “Saturday Night Live” band.

Taylor drew a huge ovation, rightly so, after performing “Fire and Rain” and closed his first set with “Sun On the Moon.” Before performing the last song, he doled out some of his humor, announcing the intermission and adding, “I don't know why we do it. All we do is go behind the curtain and stare at the clock for 20 minutes.”

When Taylor returned to the stage, I was kicking myself for not bringing one of my records. In Chicago, he signed autographs briefly before starting the show and then did it again for a lengthy – bordering on annoying – amount of time before the second set. He did the exact same thing last night. … From where Kates and I were seated I would have had a straight shot to the front of stage. And for as long as he worked the crowd, I’m quite sure I would have had gotten in there. The thought of grabbing a record and Sharpie passed through my mind before Kates and I left, but I let it go, thinking there wasn’t a chance I’d get close enough.

About midway through the second set, Taylor played one of my favorites and one we didn’t get to hear in Chicago: “Mexico.” Taylor and the band put a fresh, Cuban flare on the song, which highlighted some brass and Conte working the conga drums.

A few songs later, Taylor delivered my other lasting favorite from his career and another he didn’t play in Chicago: “Your Smiling Face.”

Then he closed his second set with the classic “Shower the People” and a surprisingly upbeat version of “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You” that had the crowd on its feet and dancing.

For the encore, “You’ve Got a Friend” had the crowd singing along, their voices echoing through the venue. The backing vocalists, while performing the hand-jive, added some spunk to the fun “Not Fade Away.”

After a bow, Taylor and his backing vocalists gathered at center stage for one more. A sentimental favorite of mine and Kates, the beautiful “You Can Close Your Eyes.”

We headed home, listening to James Taylor on the iPod and feeling fulfilled.

The setlist
“Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On the Jukebox”
“That’s Why I’m Here”
“Carolina in My Mind”
“Country Road”
“The Frozen Man”
“Handy Man”
“Little More Time With You”
“Slap Leather”
“Sweet Baby James”
“Fire and Rain”
“Sun On the Moon”


“One Man Parade”
“Anywhere Like Heaven”
“(I’m a) Road Runner”
“Another Day”
“Secret O’ Life”
“Your Smiling Face”
“Shower the People”
“How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)”

“You’ve Got a Friend”
“Not Fade Away”
“You Can Close Your Eyes”

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