LENOX -- Take a year off from touring and you're greeted like a long-lost hero.
James Taylor's admirers, about 18,000 strong, accorded him a rapturous welcome back to Tanglewood on Thursday, the first of a two-night return to home base for the singer-songwriter and his gold-standard crew of vocalists and instrumentalists.
It was a remarkable evening, despite a soggy start as a tropical deluge thoroughly soaked the bedraggled lawn crowd after they were required to take shelter in designated locations during the height of the intense thunderstorm that delayed the performance by close to 25 minutes.
But the downpour failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the capacity crowd as Taylor delivered a high-voltage show with hard-rocking arrangements of his vintage classics, rear-screen video projections of scenes sometimes connected to the lyrics, and a tantalizing taste of two new songs from his upcoming album.
His gently intimate ballad, "You and I Again," could become a classic. Against a backdrop of piano (the estimable Larry Goldings at the keyboard), a lovely, classical violin solo by longtime JT colleague Andrea Zonn with Mike Landau on acoustic guitar, Taylor extols the joy of mid-life love and tranquility. No surprise that he has described it as an "unabashed love song" about his wife Kim "and the fact it took us well into adulthood to find each other." As the first tune he has written on piano, and as a harbinger of his new CD, it offers high hopes for the still-untitled release.
The other new track, "Today, Today, Today," is a rollicking, country-flavored toe-tapper that also features Zonn, this time as a Nashville-style fiddler, and Landau.
The vocal quartet of Taylor tour veterans David Lasley, Kate Markowitz, Zonn and Arnold McCuller teamed up for sweet harmonies on some of the classics.
As the rain pelted down and because of the late start, Taylor dispensed with the intermission, offering a straight-through, two-hour, 22-song double set that included a generous selection of crowd-pleasers going back to the late-'60s start of his career as well as some deep-vault, rarely heard tracks from his 240-song catalog.
Most welcome of these was "Millworker," from the short-run 1979 Broadway musical "Working" by Stephen Schwartz and Studs Terkel, a story-song that resonates with the despair of a grinding, dead-end factory job.
With his typically light-hearted yet candid patter, Taylor described "Lo and Behold," written during his 1968 psychiatric recuperation at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, as "a connection between nature and spirituality, that hippie BS thing." So noted.
Despite the rigors of his current, 40-stop U.S. tour that resumes at SPAC later this month, Taylor displayed no vocal strain -- in fact, he sounded in top form.
As always, his band, described by the singer as the best in the business (few would deny it), contributed mightily to the success of the evening. New arrangements and stylings of chart-toppers such as "Fire and Rain," "Mexico," "How Sweet It Is," "Your Smiling Face" and several other "golden oldies" freshened the classic material that the audience always craves.
The rapid-fire, quick-change pacing of the set list demonstrates that Team Taylor never takes the fans for granted -- on the contrary. Even the appearance of his 13-year-old son Henry, apparently a budding musician, as a backup vocalist, seemed inevitable and natural ("it's ‘take your kid to work' week," his dad explained).
As always, the Shed crowd gently surged toward the stage for an arm-waving singalong during the encores -- on this occasion, "How Sweet It Is," leading into "Shower the People" (literally for the lawn stalwarts, and as always enhanced by McCuller's gospel-tinged solo into the vocal stratosphere) and the gentle, sweetly soaring "Wild Mountain Thyme." Like fine wine, Taylor ages well, delivering a spirited show that fulfilled his fans' great expectations.
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