James Taylor is undoubtedly one of the most prolific, engaging, and poetic singer-songwriters of all time. Being a six-time Grammy Award winner and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee are just some of his achievements. I would argue the 74-year-old’s biggest achievements, however, are found through his high regard amongst other musicians (George Harrison, Taylor Swift, Joni Mitchell) and the inspiration they draw from him. So, it’s fair to say there was a lot to live up to in his recent Manchester show.
Having had the performance rescheduled from January, James Taylor emerged from behind the large glowing lamps and deep greens and blues of his stage to huge applause, saying “God I thought it would never happen, Manchester.”
Taylor opened with ‘Something in the Way She Moves’, initially playing solo until his eight-person band seamlessly joined him. Like so many touring bands, Taylor’s own was described using the cliche ‘all-star’. Yet as the set progressed, members of the band would be introduced and huge names were being dropped. The first being drummer Steve Gadd, who famously collaborated with Paul Simon on ’50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’, Steely Dan on ‘Aja’, and Paul McCartney on ‘Tug of War’ and ‘Pipes of Peace’ to name a few. It quickly became apparent that this really was the actual dream team.
Before playing ‘That’s Why I’m Here’, Taylor discussed sobriety and grief, and spoke candidly to the audience about his experience of addiction. He went on to explain how the song was dedicated to anyone experiencing recovery, receiving applause as he did so. He also added: “There are still songs to come for anyone who likes to get f*cked up.”
Taylor sang effortlessly as ever whilst playing intricate finger-style guitar with great aplomb. When combined with the richness of the backing vocalists and the soft glow of the stage set, the atmosphere was warm and intimate. The set was skilfully balancing the natural nuances of live performance with what the audience wanted to hear from the well-known studio recordings.
Following ‘Walking Man’ and ‘Never Die Young’, we were introduced to jazz giant, Larry Goldings on the keyboard and Mike Landau on guitar (who played with Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Stevie Nicks and others). For ‘Never Die Young’ Goldings superbly blended into the soundscape with his accordion! Landau’s guitar skills were also sublime throughout the show.
Drummer, Steve Gadd, and fiddle player, Andrea Zonn, played a fun jig-inspired interlude which slowly opened up into ‘Sweet Baby James’ and provided a wonderful calm contrast to the mayhem of ‘Steamroller’ that followed. This was a particular highlight, beginning with Taylor’s harmonica introduction and ending up with explosive solos from Larry Goldings and Mike Landau, with Taylor jumping and dancing around the stage.
Taylor kept on cracking jokes in between songs and the audience was entertained continuously. Prior to ‘Long Ago and Far Away’, he joked about asking Joni Mitchell for permission to use her backing vocals, and said he’d pass on his best regards following the audience’s appreciation at the mention of her name.
The audience laughed their way into the interval following the sight of Taylor picking up his giant setlist. The second half didn’t disappoint.
Taylor came back onto the stage, shaking hands with the front row and signing autographs. Someone even gave him a box of Twinkies… I don’t know if that is some kind of tradition among Taylor fans, but he was pretty pleased.
More highlights included ‘Teach Me Tonight’, ‘Carolina in My Mind’ and ‘Mexico’, all with especially enveloping harmonies from his backing singers Dorian Holley (known for his performances with Michael Jackson), Arnold McCuller and Kate Markowitz.
Whilst intimacy may be difficult in a venue as large as the Apollo, ‘Fire and Rain’ felt like the most connected part of the evening between James Taylor and his audience. In between the outpouring of positivity in ‘Mexico’ and ‘Shower the People’, he discussed how travelling and seeing the world are his favourite things about being a musician. His honesty, humour, and undeniable warmth complemented his already masterful musicianship. This show felt like a musician’s masterclass in how to put on a good live performance, but also on how one should develop a musicianship of sheer class and professionalism without losing affability. James Taylor has it all down to a tee.
‘Your Smiling Face’ had everyone up out of their seats clapping and singing along, which was followed by a superb encore of ‘You’ve Got a Friend’, ‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)’ and ‘You Can Close Your Eyes’. Taylor and his band seemed to have so much fun during the gig and took a bow together on the Apollo stage ending a flawless evening of music.
From listening to James Taylor in the car when I was younger, I can recall my Dad explaining how he “has a beautiful song for every occasion.” This evening Taylor was able to share his most beautiful songs and convey the emotions of every occasion with those in the Apollo. From start to finish, he was outstanding.
You can visit James Taylor’s official website for more tour dates and the latest news here.