When James Taylor played Fenway Park for the first time two years ago with Bonnie Raitt in tow, it demonstrated that a pop star with the heart of a folkie could fill a stadium as easily as a coffeehouse, no problem. On Friday, Taylor returned to the ballpark for the third August in a row, and with last year’s show having proven the first was no fluke, he greeted a perfect summer evening with a confident warmth befitting what is manifestly a man who is content.
Taylor once again brought along Raitt, whose hour-long opening set spanned her 4 1/2-decade career. Comfortable in her own abilities, she never had to push hard to make her point. In her hands, “Need You Tonight” remained as sultry as INXS’s original, but there was something more knowing in it; a dead stop followed the line “There’s something about you, boy, that makes me sweat,” and the silence said plenty. The fingerpicked acoustic blues of “Love Me Like A Man” covered similar territory from a different direction altogether.
Raitt was essentially on her own for that song, but she otherwise benefited from a fine band that could sound supple and sultry whether on bluesy funk like “Unintended Consequence Of Love” or the slick pop of “Nick Of Time.” When they joined Raitt during “Angel From Montgomery,” the song slowly lifted above the ground. Her own electric slide guitar, meanwhile, was as versatile and expressive as her voice: pleading on “Have A Heart,” insinuating on “Need You Tonight,” playfully resigned on a Taylor-assisted “Thing Called Love.”
Taylor’s set began with the gentle, welcoming swell of “Carolina In My Mind,” kicking off his Fenway return with a song about imagining himself somewhere else. (He’d revisit that theme, with a more festive perspective, later during “Mexico.”) A few songs — like a sharp “Something In The Way She Moves” and a softly atmospheric, slightly unmoored “Fire And Rain” that floated a little uneasily — mined the tension between his folk-leaning formative days and his adult-contemporary hit-making years to sharp effect.
Mostly, though, the balance tipped toward the latter, with songs like “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” and “Up On The Roof” falling between ’70s soft rock and slack feel-goodery. But just as drummer Steve Gadd peppered the pleasant stroll of “Country Road” with heartbeat-quickening jolts, Taylor kept things sharp by never going long without tightening the slack. He brought Raitt back for a stomping and raucous “Johnny B. Goode” where she tore up two ferocious solos, and they ended alone on stage singing “You Can Close Your Eyes.” Their distinct voices didn’t quite mesh, but it was simple and pure and lovely, which was all that mattered.
James Taylor, with Bonnie Raitt
At: Fenway Park, Friday
Watch some video from the concert: