James Taylor’s debut Fenway Park performance last year served effectively as proof of concept, showing that a fairly non-demonstrative singer known for working in a quieter mode could pull off a stadium concert without difficulty. So his return Wednesday night was an easygoing, low-pressure affair that found him in good spirits even on his saddest material.
Of course, that’s always been part and parcel of Taylor’s appeal, with the singer-songwriter’s unique brand of bittersweet folk-rock wrapping around his listeners like a cozy, minutely scratchy sweater on a brisk autumn day. And it stayed that way even when his most intimate material was writ ballpark-huge. “Fire and Rain” remained a breath determined not to turn into a sob, with drummer Steve Gadd shining by pushing in unexpected places as he nonetheless kept moving the song forward. And Taylor’s voice and acoustic guitar were more than enough for “Carolina in My Mind,” even as other instruments joined in one by one with each verse.
But Taylor’s reserve could sometimes be a misdirect, nowhere more evident than on “Country Road,” introduced as being about the singer’s consistent theme of nature-as-church. The arrangement centered around Taylor’s plucked acoustic, even as a conga groove rose and Gadd’s drums and Michael Landau’s stinging electric leads stepped forward. By the end, Taylor’s own vocal had caught fire, testifying mightily as the song became as big as it could get. He goofed off during “Steamroller,” singing it as the blues parody it was, until the song transformed in the middle thanks to screaming organ and guitar solos.
Then again, Taylor’s image as a sensitive folkie is not-so-secretly belied by his string of feel-good pop hits. The warm and luxurious “Shower the People” was nakedly sentimental, but it worked, and “Mexico” was fairly indistinguishable from Jimmy Buffett. Given that his smiling-face pop era started in the mid-’70s, many of the arrangements that found their way to Fenway were slushy, from the glassy keyboards and smooth horns of “Walking Man” to an overworked version of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday.”
Not that it mattered. When he brought opener Jackson Browne out for an encore duet on “Doctor My Eyes,” the two created a joyous energy together, and he closed with nothing but acoustic fingerpicking and group vocals on the lovely “You Can Close Your Eyes.” Even when he goes too far afield, Taylor always knows when to come home.
Proving once again (after Bonnie Raitt last year) that Taylor does not fool around with his opening acts, Browne kicked things off with an hour-long performance that eschewed a greatest-hits set in favor of a somewhat idiosyncratic hop across his career, playing major hits such as “Running on Empty” and the inherently ’80s “Somebody’s Baby” alongside quality material with a smaller popular footprint. He didn’t set fire to his best songs, such as “For a Rocker” (with its three-guitar showdown at the end) and the stately “For Everyman,” so much as dig in with his unassuming but curious voice that didn’t seem substantially diminished by age.
Watch Taylor and Browne perform: