James Taylor and first-rate band rule the night at Tanglewood


LENOX — Let there be no mistake, here. Sunday's Tanglewood show (as well as Monday's) was billed as James Taylor and his All-Star Band. And yes, it's a great band. But Taylor is still running the show.

Taylor and the band on Sunday night turned in a pleasing, powerful 24-song set that pushed three hours before a packed house of 18.000. It was the longest set of his spring/summer tour to date.

But first, the band. There are more heavy hitters in this crew than the 2004 Red Sox. Steve Gadd may not be the best drummer in rock, but it would take a long search to find someone better.

Bassist Billy Johnson, keyboard player Larry Goldings and guitarist Mike Landau are studio session icons. Fans may recall Landau's exquisite lead work with Steely Dan, particularly his solo on "Peg" in Steely Dan's Aja.

Percussionist Luis Conte and violin player Andrea Zon have both recorded one or more albums. And the horns! Saxophonist Lou "Blue Lou" Marini of Blues Brothers fame and trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist Walter Fowler, another session giant.

The backup singers, Arnold McCuller, Kate Markowicz and Kim (as in Mrs. James) Taylor were also top shelf.

Okay, the show. Taylor clearly enjoyed coming back to his home. He was relaxed and easily parried the inevitable fawning shouts in a way that let the audience know he was okay with it.

"I love you!" shouted one woman early in the set.

"But this is so sudden," said Taylor, feigning confusion.

Later, "We're going to play a few songs from the new album." Pause. "But I know you didn't come here to hear no Goddam new music!"

Early on, came the lesser-known hits: "Something in the Way She Moves" from 1968, "Walking Man" from 1970 and "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" from 1972. Jammed in between those first two songs was a neat Buddy Holly number, "Everyday."

The fifth song was "Today, today, today" from his latest disc, 2015's "Before This World." After "Country Road" came the rarely played "On the Fourth of July," a lyrically tight, musically pleasing effort from his 2012 record, "October Road."

The first set ended with "Fire and Rain" and a lovely "Shower the People." Taylor handed the last verse to McCuller, who just crushed it, with Kim Taylor and Markowicz harmonizing. Wow.

The second set opened with another cleverly written ditty, "God Have Mercy on the Frozen Man" and then Taylor's version of Chuck Berry's "Promised Land"; that is, not as frenetic as Chuck, and of a more even tempo.

Carol King's "You've Got A Friend" showed up next and we knew the windup was coming. That turned out to be a smoking "Steamroller" with Fowler's trumpet, Golding's piano and Landau's axe all taking solos. Taylor and the crew rocked it. Up-tempo versions of "Mexico" and "Your Smiling Face" closed the set.

The encore was a cautionary tale: When Taylor plugs in an electric guitar, instead of an acoustic instrument, he's going to shake it up. In this case, it was Wilson "Wicked" Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour" with Marini and Fowler cooking. "Blue Lou" struck again with a sweet solo on "How Sweet It Is," and the lights went up.

And back down. Taylor, drenched in sweat, came out as some were heading for the exits. He played "You Can Close Your Eyes," a sweet number that calmed everyone down and sent them home.

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251


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