NEW YORK, NY—James Taylor took on his roots at the Carnegie Hall in the second of his four-part residency at the storied institution where everyone from Presidents to The Beatles has graced its cavernous stage. On this night the hall celebrated its 120th gala where Taylor played emcee to the likes of Sting, Bette Midler, Steve Martin and Bill Clinton. This time around it was strictly for the fans.
Offering up a whimsical, sage-like take on his career, Taylor took the crowd on a trip through his roots, combining songs and storytelling. From ‘50s country to English hymnals, Broadway show tunes, the burgeoning folk scene in Greenwich Village and the blues, he laid out a meandering path of highways and byways to the night’s retrospective. Dressed in a charcoal suit, Taylor’s lanky presence onstage was a commanding one. One thing, however, remains: the man, his guitar and the voice.
Country singer Alison Krauss (who sang with Robert Plant on the incredible Rising Sand album), Dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas, bluesman Robert Cray and singer Tony Bennett rounded out the mix as they played to Taylor’s eclectic takes on Americana. Guitarist Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar—from Taylor’s first band, Flying Machines—fired up minimalist leads that added a ballsy edginess to Taylor’s soothing vocals. His contorted riffs were a gritty slap to James’ simplistically complex fingerpicking style.
Opening solo with “Secret O’ Life” from the 1977 JT album, Taylor quickly got down to his influences and the songs they inspired on the bluesier “Ol’ Blue” that flowed into a light and breezy “Copperline” with Douglas on the dobro. Taylor reflected from the stage as he laid out the night’s program on the three phases of his musical career including his family record collection of Broadway show tunes, his brother Alex’s record collection of ‘50s soulsters and childhood friend Kootch, whom Taylor met when he was 13. The rousing country rocker “(I Got to) Stop Thinkin’ About That” from the New Moon Shine album followed with Kootch ripping through the cavernous sonic boom at Carnegie on his Fender guitar.
A song to the Appalachian hills segued into a full-blown choral rendering of “Carolina In My Mind.” “The best trucker’s song ever written, even better than the ‘70s hit ‘Convoy,’” said Taylor. “Six Days on the Road” was next. The English hymnal “Jerusalem” that was the inspiration to “Never Die Young” followed.
On “Never, Never Land,” from the 1954 Broadway musical Peter Pan, Taylor and Krauss harmonized in glorious Technicolor. “Sittin on Top of the World,” which Cream made popular in the ‘60s, had Robert Cray busting the blues. Taylor paid homage to George Jones with “Why Baby Why” by the Possums. It was a playful romp with Alison Krauss whom Taylor introduced as the finest singer in the land. FM radio faves “Smiling Face,” the Goffin-King oldie “Up on the Roof “ and “Country Roads” ended the first set on a high note.
Kootch’s “Machine Gun Kelly,” “Night Owl” and “Steamroller” highlighted Taylor’s early take on the blues that he lightheartedly poked fun at, adding “We all wanted to be bluesmen singing ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ when we were just pimply-faced adolescents driving to the gig in a station wagon from the suburbs!” There was hushed silence, then whoops and hollers as he introduced the next guest, Tony Bennett, filling in for Amy Grant and Vince Gill who could not attend due to a family emergency. They dueted on “Put On A Happy Face” in an impromptu take of warm and fuzzy vocals with Bennett looking dapper and suave as ever.
“Oh, What A Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma was the closer that took us back to the Taylor family station wagon riding from the Carolinas to Martha’s Vineyard in the ‘50s with sweet baby James staring out the window in the back seat at the wide blue yonder, fire and rain.