Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“You’re still sexy!”
It was just a lone voice from the crowd, directed not at New Kids on the Block — that was two weeks ago — but James Taylor, who brought a churning urn of burning funk to the PPG Paints Arena on Saturday night.
The set-up for that come-on was Taylor backing the song “Sunny Skies” with a video of him frolicking around with lovable pug.
“Shameless footage of a dog,” he said in his wry manner. “When you give up on sexy, you gotta go cute.”
Apparently, he doesn’t have to give up on sexy completely. James Taylor, at 69, can still woo fans with those tender folk/pop songs, just sitting on a stool in the middle of an arena picking an acoustic guitar.
Those were just a few parts of the show, although that’s the image most people have of his concerts. When I told someone I was going to see James Taylor, he said, “Why, are you not sleeping well lately?”
JT and his crack 10-piece band do plenty to keep us awake. In fact, by the end, he had his crowd (of about 7,000) up and dancing like it was a wedding.
The first thing Taylor did to keep people alert was to bring along Bonnie Raitt, whom he stepped out to introduce as “my favorite singer in the world.”
If you just saw Bonnie Raitt walking down the street, you’d probably think she looks pretty cool. Accessorize her with a beat-up Strat and she enters an almost untouchable realm of cool. With her red hair and that shock of white, she stands on stage like a queen — upright and poised — and plays slide guitar like a devil. Over her 45-year Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career, she’s demonstrated time again that she can trade licks with anybody. She continues to do it now with another skilled player in George Marinelli, from blazing solos to slow burners.
She packed a lot of greatness into her hour with staples like “Something to Talk About” and her stunning cover of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” which she dedicated to the millions of women in the world who don’t enjoy the freedoms and choices that American women do.
After the lovely “Take My Love With You,” she said “Nothing like a sweet one…followed by a sour one,” leading her into a fiery “Spit of Love” with one of her meanest jams.
She has swagger to burn. In her cover of INXS’s “Need You Tonight,” she sang, “There’s something about you, baby …. that makes me sweat,” at which point she stopped for a second to glare at the audience. You had to be there to feel it.
At the piano, she took “Nick of Time” to church with gospel singer Arnold McCuller from JT’s band. “It’s a song I wrote when it was 39 and worried about turning 40,” she said. “It’s funny to think about that now.” The 67-year-old guitarist said that when she was carousing with the old blues guys all those years ago, “I never thought I’d still be here now.” We’re lucky to have her.
She ended her set with Taylor back for a rousing duet on John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” with three guitars flaring.
Taylor was re-introduced with a retrospective video not unlike the ones you see for boy bands like NKOTB. It mixed the young, sexy James Taylor with moments that poked fun at himself, like his comic turn on “The Simpsons”
“I don’t present a character,” he said on screen. “I don’t present a version of myself. I present myself.”
He had the biggest stage production we’ve seen from him with lots of colorful graphics and dangling video screens, but the focus was his moving array of hits, his ageless honeyed voice and an all-star band with the likes of drum legend Steve Gadd, guitarist Michael Landau, horn player Lou Marini and fiddler Andrea Zonn. They created smooth, shimmering backdrops for songs like “Carolina in My Mind,” “Jump Up Behind Me” and “Something In The Way She Moves,” while kickin’ out lively Latin rhythms on “Mexico” and “First of May.”
The latter came with a hilariously f-word-laced intro from Taylor, quoting his father about what comes with spring. More Taylor-like was his explanation of “Sweet Baby James” as a “cowboy lullaby” written for his nephew that would be a “go to sleep, you little buckaroo kind of thing.”
You could see that the beauty of playing with these musicians is that even if were a bit tired of trotting out songs like “Sweet Baby James,” “Fire and Rain” and “Steamroller,” he’s inspired by the subtle tweaks to the arrangements. “Country Road” was the runway for Gadd’s impressive flight.
Taylor and the soulful McCuller turned “Shed a Little Light,” a tribute to MLK, and “Shower the People” into rousing gospel hymns. It was with the joyful set-closers of “Your Smiling Face” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” that it felt like a wedding party, at least where I was standing.
You don’t expect a Chuck Berry cover from James Taylor, but with the passing of the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer and Bonnie on board, we got a pretty smokin’ version of “Johnny B. Goode.”
Some artists would end it on a Chuck Berry note. JT settled back down for an easy “You’ve Got a Friend,” before the legends sat together to harmonize on “You Can Close Your Eyes,” a closing lullaby.
After that, it was time to go to sleep.
James Taylor Set List
Carolina in My Mind
Never Die Young
First of May
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight
Jump Up Behind Me
Something In The Way She Moves
Sweet Baby James
Fire and Rain
Shed a Little Light
Shower The People
Your Smiling Face
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)
(Marvin Gaye cover)
Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry cover) (with Bonnie Raitt)
You’ve Got a Friend (Carole King cover)
You Can Close Your Eyes (with Bonnie Raitt)
Bonnie Raitt Set List
Unintended Consequence of Love
Need You Tonight (INXS cover)
Take My Love With You
Spit of Love
Love Me Like a Man (Chris Smither cover)
Have a Heart
Something to Talk About
Nick of Time
Angel From Montgomery (John Prine cover)
Thing Called Love (John Hiatt cover)
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