Just before the music started on Friday night (July 15) during James Taylor’s concert at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion, the audience was shown short video clips of amateur artists covering songs by the man of the hour. The setup, theme and language used in the videos followed a pattern – they were personal statements directed toward Taylor, explaining why his songs meant so much to so many people.
Taylor found tremendous success, particularly in the 1970s, with a series of deceptively simple folk songs. Tunes like “Fire & Rain” and “Carolina in My Mind” became part of the folk rock canon, as did his work with Carole King and his cover of her song “You’ve Got a Friend.”
He would play each of those three songs – and about 20 others – during his first Arkansas concert since 2019 as a group of musical pros flanked him on all corners of the AMP stage.
Next at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion
Who: Josh Groban’s “Harmony Tour”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, July 21
Where: Arkansas Music Pavilion, Rogers
Cost: Starting at $35 plus fees
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or amptickets.com
Taylor’s most popular songs were never “lively” numbers, and with the exception of the bluesy track “Steamroller,” the evening played out very calmly. Chairs were brought in for the lawn, and for the first time at any show I’ve watched at the AMP, every patron there was seated at the same time, with the exception of those grabbing another drink.
The evening was broken up into two sets – each about an hour long – with a 25-minute intermission in between them. Taylor spent both sets spanning the American songbook while also diving into genres such as jazz and the blues. His band was up to all tasks. It featured seasoned players such as Steve Gadd (who has worked with Simon & Garfunkel, to name one act) and Lou Marini, a woodwind player famous for his time in Earth, Wind and Fire and the “Saturday Night Live” house band. The output was a massive undertaking. In addition to Taylor and the aforementioned band members, on-stage personnel included four backing vocalists, a guitarist, a bassist, a combination organist/trumpeter, a percussionist and a keyboard player. The set was otherwise sparse – there was a large tree that arced over a main video board. The images that played on the video board were mostly pastoral – in other words, a good match for Taylor’s songs.
He and the band felt more dialed in during the second half, and his vocals seemed stronger too. Taylor had a good time, to be sure. He sometimes scatted and played with his cadence and vocal rhythms almost to the point of self-parody, but never quite reaching that threshold. Perhaps because he was always smiling his way through the songs.
The same could be said for most of the (seated) audience members. Taylor fancies himself as a comedian, and he told some terrible jokes along the way. He would agree with my assessment of those jokes, telling the crowd that the old jokes were the best ones.
His between-song interjections provided most of the levity of a slow, methodical evening. And that’s what his audience paid to see – a serious look at some old songs that refuse to age just yet.