LIVE: James Taylor & Jackson Browne @ SPAC, 08/24/2021
On a hazy and humid late August night, Jackson Browne and James Taylor filled the Saratoga Performing Arts Center with over 15,000 fans who sang, swayed and danced along to tunes new and old alike. Both artists could be content to play popular and well-loved tracks but instead demonstrated creativity and innovation in their setlists. Playing with musicians who are greats in their field, Taylor and Browne maximized the star power talent to benefit the summer-loving music fans.
Browne took the stage at 7:30 to an enthusiastic crowd who were still finding seats. With his easy but earnest style, he obviously could be more than an opener – but the main event himself. The seasoned professional was in tune and well balanced with his band. He clearly had been performing for years, but humbly opened for Taylor. His humility was rewarded tenfold by the fans who clearly came to hear him.
Browne is a 72-year-old songwriter who first came to fame as a soloist with “Doctor My Eyes” in 1972. And while he played that well-loved song about his pain at seeing ugliness in the world, as well as “Running on Empty,” he showcased his band members and highlighted social justice issues with newer songs from “Downhill from Everywhere.” With Chevon Stuart and Aretha Manners, two female vocalists in the band, the band performed “Until Justice is Real,” a song that noted “The truth will cost you in the land of the free.” With a weepy slide guitar and lyrics like that, Browne seems to be writing the anthem for the next generation rather than generations past.
Browne welcomed Taylor to the stage for “The Pretender,” and the two created a joyful sound together. Earlier in the night, Browne had thanked Taylor who “helped me get through the last year and a half knowing we had these shows at the end.” Browne is a solemn fellow, serious in his words and equally thoughtful in his lyrics. Browne’s words explore the wisdom of knowing sadness and darkness; he isn’t afraid, to tell the truth, matched with electric guitar, piano, and drums. He shares the spotlight well, and in his humility also seems to have found contentment touring with this current group.
Jackson Browne is a headliner in his own right, but he took the time to introduce the musicians and spotlight their talents. His ten-song setlist was satisfying both in quality of sound and musicianship. If James Taylor wasn’t on next, I’m not sure what could have followed that set.
But Taylor was up next promptly at 9:01.
James Taylor started with a video of fans sharing how meaningful his songwriting had been as they performed the most beloved pieces “Fire and Rain,” “Carolina on My Mind,” and “Sweet Baby James.” Transitioning to a single fiddle played by the talented Andrea Zonn, Taylor’s fans listened and watched her in the spotlight until the band took the stage for “Country Road.”
James Taylor concerts are for many THE experience of summer concerts: familiar songs, beautifully sung with outstanding visuals behind them. So in many ways, Taylor didn’t disappoint. In fact, he was a far cry from the James Taylor Nippertown recently reviewed at Tanglewood a few years ago. At SPAC, he was spry, standing (not seated much of the night), playing riffs on the guitar and ad-libbing a bit with vocals, and even jumped up and down with glee at the close of “Country Road.”
Even though it was late August, that first song did feel like the door opened again to summer.
Taylor’s All-Star Band really was filled with stars, too. Steve Gadd on drums, Luis Conte, and Michito Sanzech on percussion kept the heart racing throughout the first five songs. “Never Die Young” and “Copperline” brought the crowd both familiar and new melodies with no complaints. Taylor was animated as he joked about “That’s Why I’m Here,” a song he dedicated to those on the lawn “and those in recovery.”
When he removed his jacket and the crowd cheered, 73-year-old Taylor looked behind him to see who folks were cheering for. With perfect timing and Dad joke smile, he responded “You make an old man feel good, thank you” before launching into a rousing version of “Mexico.” Walt Fowler on keys and horn was showcased here, as was Sanchez. The band transitioned easily to “You Make It Easy,” a sultry love song that showed even 73-year-old vocalists can still have it; Taylor’s ease with crescendos and holding pitch belied his aging vocal cords.
Taylor was full of stories, chatting with the crowd and playing the part with such simplicity and ease that it was hard not to recall previous concerts where he so fluidly could do the same. But tonight felt different, possibly because Taylor himself was the embodiment of energy.
Backed by band members like Lou Marini on horn and Larry Golding on piano, it is easy to see where Taylor might be getting his lifeline from. Vocalists Katie Markowitz, Arnold McCuller, Dorian Holley, and his own son Henry Taylor definitely added to the groovy and feel-good vibe.
Perhaps the best song of the night was “Steamroller,” complete with Taylor on a robin’s egg blue electric guitar. Taylor’s range, rhythmic grunts, and silly faces were matched by the band’s horns and then the wall of sound that brought SPAC patrons to their feet. The song reminded me that Taylor is best known for feel good classics, but he can really groove when he wants to, too.
Taylor also performed a new rendition of an American standard from a cartoon. “As Easy as Rolling Off a Log” provided a lighter energy after that sexy, hot and heavy “Steamroller.” And then Taylor took his seat on the stool and played the required Taylor standards: “Sweet Baby James,” “Fire and Rain,” “Carolina in My Mind,” and of course “Shower the People.” The crowd sang along, swaying through “How Sweet It Is” before demanding an encore.
The four encore songs included a cover from the Eagles (“Take It Easy”) that was joined by Jackson Browne. Browne stayed for “You’ve Got a Friend,” and then Taylor ended with “You Can Close Your Eyes.”
It was a satisfying experience to witness Taylor and Browne together, returning post-pandemic stronger together and after their time of rest and creativity. The sated crowd left, reassured that you can go home again when you are ready. Even if just in your mind for a night, it was a welcome return.