James Taylor came home again to North Carolina Sunday night, delivering a splendid concert to a near-sellout crowd at the PNC Music Pavilion in Charlotte.
Taylor, 66, grew up largely in Chapel Hill and has been a star in the music world for more than four decades. But his voice remains both strong and velvety, and he has honed an underrated sense of humor after all these years performing.
Before playing his 1970s hit “You’ve Got a Friend,” Taylor described the night he first heard songwriter Carole King perform the song. Taylor got so excited that, he said, “I literally ran to get my guitar and try to learn how to play it. Of course, I didn’t realize then I’d be playing it every night for the rest of my life.”
There were many stories like that throughout a languid, pleasurable night. Taylor also enjoys making fun of himself, as he did when describing a series of songs he wrote early in his career as “nature/spirituality hippie bull----.”
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In fact, Taylor seems to enjoy talking to the audience almost as much as playing, and in concert he frequently turns into a one-man “Behind the Music” special. On Sunday, he described how he played “Something in the Way She Moves” for a small audience including Paul McCartney in 1968 and won his first recording contract, and how he wrote “Sweet Baby James” on a drive from Massachusetts to North Carolina to meet the baby nephew who had been named for him.
As engaging as Taylor can be, however, fans ultimately come to hear the music. His concerts are like mellow family reunions. Taylor is the favorite uncle, re-introducing one beloved relative after another.
He played “Carolina In My Mind” not once but twice on Sunday night, at both the end of the first set and again, briefly, as his final encore. Old favorites “Country Road,” “Fire and Rain” and “Shower the People” drew standing ovations from a crowd that looked to be around 15,000.
Backed by a 10-man band, Taylor also has embraced the video age. While he never will be a showy performer – a major costume change for Taylor consists of putting on a cap – he has added video footage to most of his songs in the second set. The results occasionally overwhelm the live performance but are mostly impressive.
Hundreds of smiling faces of all races light up the screen during “Your Smiling Face.” And “Handyman” is a laugh-out-loud highlight. Taylor introduced it as a “lovely song about a gigolo.” That was followed by Taylor singing live while a comic-relief video plays of a handsome young man who is dressed as a fireman, painter and welder, and flashes a series of way over-the-top, come-hither looks.
Taylor long ago dispensed with opening acts. He simply walked onstage in jeans and a checked shirt at 8:20 p.m. What followed was 21/2 hours that rarely struck a false note.
One quibble: Why make one of the encores the obscure “Wild Mountain Thyme” when so many other Taylor hits (“Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” “Secret of Life” and “Only a Dream in Rio,” to name three) were not played?
But with a catalog as deep as Taylor’s, you can’t play everything. And he is ultimately a crowd-pleaser.
At all of his shows, Taylor’s band takes a 20-minute intermission. Taylor claims not to know why, he said, “since all we do is go and stand behind that curtain for 20 minutes and look at our watches.”
But with no telling how many tours he has left, Taylor has decided to stop looking at his watch.
In Charlotte, as he has done on many tour stops, he stayed onstage for much of the intermission, signing autographs and posing for selfies with the fans closest to the stage. Those fans, like almost all the rest Sunday night, went home happy.