Concert Review: James Taylor at Red Rocks in Denver
In December I was in Tokyo. I’d been in Asia for 2 weeks already and I was worn out, cold, lonely, and homesick. As I walked by a Starbucks in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, I heard the strains of James Taylor. It took me home. He has the power — his baritone voice and warm melodies convey a profound sense of locality. His words and music describe home with the clarity of Tolkien writing about a place in Middle-Earth.
JT’s latest visit to the Red Rock Amphitheatre above Denver is described as James Taylor and his Band of Legends Tour. Last winter he collected musicians in his studio-converted-from-a-barn at his home in western Massachusetts. There they recorded “covers” or as he described it “songs originally done by other artists.” In support of the September release of this upcoming Covers album the celebrated singer-songwriter concludes at Red Rocks an almost three dozen city North American tour accompanied by his full big band. These songs were inspired by such notable recording artists as Chuck Berry, Big Mama Thornton, Junior Walker, among others, along with performances of Taylor’s greatest hits, including most of my favorites.
Red Rocks has a special affinity for JT. He started by saying “I haven’t played here since… 1903!” In truth, it’s been since 2003 that he was last here, and I was in the audience then. He ended his final encore then with Sweet Baby James, but not this time, as I’ll describe below. But this time he said of Red Rocks, “It’s one of my favorite venues… I’ve not seen a more beautiful place so far.” He certainly didn’t say this the last time he was in Denver, when I caught his concert at the Coor’s Amphitheatre.
He’s said in an interview:
“We play a number of those WPA/National Recovery Act theaters and venues,” Taylor said, recounting some of his favorite spots around the country including the Greek Theatre in Berkeley — where I first saw him perform almost 30 years ago. “I like playing those and thinking about how they were ‘get the nation back to work’ kinds of things. We’re about two hours outside of Boston, three from New York. We live in a state forest that was . . . a planted forest, a Civilian Conservation Corps effort. They brought people out of New York and Boston to large camps there, and they would plant tracts of various kinds of trees with the idea that they’d be timber down the line.”
Though he took to the stage 15 minutes late, the crowd was enthusiastic. There were a dozen musicians on stage. He had 4 vocalists, who occasionally played instruments, and 7 instrumentalists including a saxophonist, trumpeter, 2 drummers, 2 guitarists and a pianist. These included:
Michael Landau – electric guitar
Luis Conte – percussion
David Lasley – vocals
Walt Fowler – horns, keys
Lou Marini – horns (the “Blue Lou” of Saturday Night Live and Blues Brothers)
Steve Gadd – drums
Kate Markowitz – vocals
Larry Goldings – piano, synthesizer
Arnold McCuller – vocals
Jimmy Johnson – bass
Andrea Zonn – vocals, fiddle
… each of which he introduced, saying, “I’ve got to introduce them all or the bus ride is terrible, they get so touchy.”
He started the set with
- It’s Growing
by the Temptations. This was immediately followed by
- Get A Job
or as it’s better known by the words “Shanana-na, shanana-nana” originally done by the Silhouettes.
Then he did one of the crowd pleasers
- Country Road
and as he walked down a country road, with the timbre of his voice still perfect after all these years, he flung music into the air. This was finished by an Appalachian version of an Irish jig, with fiddle, whistle and drum called
- Whiskey Before Breakfast
As the wind came up into the open air mountain venue he said “it’s gone all blustery.” He then introduced a song made famous by Glenn Campbell
- Wichita Lineman
As the wind increased, foreboding a storm, he said “It’s a night for hairspray… or in my case bowling ball wax. Now here’s a song by George Jones from 1955.”
- Why Baby Why
He recounted how they’d toured across Canada and in Calgary played at the Rodeo. “You’ve heard the saying ‘you’ve got to go to a rodeo?’ Well, this was my first. We had to do a couple of country songs because we were told this was the ‘Nashville of the North’. We did another country song to balance it out, this one from Rogers & Hammerstein. It’s a Broadway song about ‘country’ as if Broadway knew anything about it. This is the first song from the musical Oklahoma.”
- Oh What A Beautiful Morning
and what he did with it was magical. I don’t know why, but I felt like I’d been transported to OZ.
- Every Day
was a cover of an old Buddy Holly tune. And “Blue” Lou did and incredible sax solo. He then told us the story of doing some work back in the ’70s, “that’s a whole decade that I don’t remember. But evidently and repeatedly I played at a nightclub in LA called the ‘Troubadour’. And I worked with someone named Carol King. I was so excited to learn the chords to a song she’d written. I didn’t realize at the time I’d be playing that song every night for the rest of my life on Earth. But it could be worse. My hit could have been something like ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight.”
- You’ve Got A Friend
As he sang:
If the sky above you
Should turn dark and full of clouds
And that old north wind should begin to blow
…the crowd shouted their approval, for it had indeed begun to rain by this time. This is not the first concert I’ve seen at Red Rocks where it rained — last summer’s Diana Krall concert did the same — but JT had a particularly good attitude toward it and wove a number of jokes around it.
To add a little sunshine, and a more than usual Latin beat intro from drummer Luis Conte he played
Before the break, they did a song that starts as an acapella chorus, almost like a hymn, that I used in the introduction to my podcast to the “History of Martin Luther King”
- Shed a Little Light
Let us turn our thoughts today
To Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women
Living on the earth
Ties of hope and love
Sister and brotherhood
He returned from the break with a song by Big Mamma Thornton, a song made popular by Elvis Presley, but done in a style unfamiliar to those who know the Elvis version
- Hound Dog
JT followed this with one of his perennial favorites
- Walking Man
Then came a song make famous by Junior Walker and the All Stars
- Road Runner
but during the song, the thunderstorm came up strong and they lost all audio power toward the end of the song. This was quickly remedied and he picked up without a best using one of his most popular hits, a song that was most apropos
- Fire and Rain
I’ve been walking my mind to an easy time
My back turned towards the sun
Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around
This was followed by a song by the Dixie Chicks, “We really like the Dixie Chicks” JT said.
- Some Days You Gotta Dance
One of my favorites came next. I can still remember watching Sesame Street with my children when they were young, and he was on the show, up on the roof to sing
- Up On The Roof
As the rain continued, and JT changed guitars between almost every song, he quipped “This is my all-weather guitar. The electric guitar is a vast improvement over the gas and steam powered guitars that proceeded it, and there was the word burning guitar which was unsuccessful for obvious reasons. The less said about the horse-drawn guitar, the better. The old jokes are the best, don’t you think?”
This song is essentially an excuse for some judicious jazz jamming. JT will ham it up with the audience and even jam with his voice. The end of the song featured him and his lead guitarist in a duel over a cacophony of chaotic chords.
- Carolina on My Mind
came next, one of his favorites. But he didn’t do the other song about that part of the country, namely “Copperline.”
- Shower the People
was a huge crowd favorite, with an extended solo by Arnold McCuller, “a fine vocalist in his own right. I’ve listened to his album ‘Sabor’ over and over again.” JT mentioned.
- Your Smiling Face
had everyone on their feet, singing along, and ending the show. But the crowd wouldn’t settle for that. They called “JT, JT, JT…” and unsurprisingly he came out for a number of encores, including the cover of Wilson Pickett’s
- Midnight Hour
which slid effortlessly into the cover of Eddie Floyd’s
- Knock On Wood
- How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)
This Marvin Gaye song had everyone clapping and singing. But this fabulous show ended with just JT, his four backup vocalists and a guitar singing the heartfelt and beautifully harmonious song he’d first recorded over 40 years ago. As I recall, the last time he sang this song at Red Rocks, he was joined onstage by his musician daughter Sally Taylor who was at the University of Colorado at the time.
- Close Your Eyes
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture