by Jay Lustig, Special to The Record
James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt’s first show together was in 1970, at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. He headlined and she, still a junior at Radcliffe College, opened.
Their paths have continued to cross over the years. Most famously, perhaps, they both performed at the “No Nukes” protest concerts at Madison Square Garden in 1979. And on Thursday night, Taylor, 69, and Raitt, 67, kicked off a joint tour at the Prudential Center in Newark.
Taylor pronounced it a “dream come true” moments before they performed one of their three numbers together: His tender ballad “You Can Close Your Eyes,” which they sang while sitting close to each other on stools, backed only by his acoustic guitar.
It was Taylor’s third encore. For the first, he and Raitt, backed by his full band, sang Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” as a tribute to the late rock icon, with Raitt on slide guitar and Taylor’s guitarist Michael Landau both taking solos.
They sang that, as well as “You Can Close Your Eyes,” in unison, harmonizing throughout instead of taking different lines or verses. They had performed together at the end of Raitt’s opening set, too, on Raitt’s 1989 John Hiatt-written hit “Thing Called Love,” trading verses and harmonizing on the choruses. And though it wasn’t a duet, Raitt made sure to include her cover of Taylor’s “Rainy Day Man” in her set.
The collaborations made the evening unique, though on a more basic level, the tour is simply an opportunity to see two formidable artists, both backed by top-notch bands, in the same evening. And by teaming up, Taylor and Raitt can play bigger venues – arenas and stadiums – than the amphitheaters and theaters where they usually can be found.
“This is a trip,” Raitt said, staring out at the vast expanses of the Prudential Center.
In his nearly two-hour set, Taylor sang the mellow masterpieces he is best known for: “Fire and Rain,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Sweet Baby James,” “Carolina in My Mind” and so on. But he also had plenty of room for more upbeat hits such as “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” “Your Smiling Face,” “Mexico” (with more of a salsa feel than in the studio version) and the gospelly “Shed a Little Light,” and he worked in some less familiar songs, including “Montana,” “Sunny Skies” and “Jump Up Behind Me.”
Virtually everyone in his large band — including such session giants as the drummer Steve Gadd, the percussionist Luis Conte and the saxophonist “Blue Lou” Marini — got at least one spotlight solo, with some enthusiastic praise from Taylor and even a photo display, for each musician, on the video screens. Taylor made much use of those screens, showing lots of old photos and video footage of himself during songs, and well as other video sequences meant to complement the material. It added a busy visual component to music that was calm and centered and soulful, and I wonder if the show would have been even more powerful without it (or with the screens used more sparingly).
Raitt had less time to work with, but still included lots of trademark songs (including “Something to Talk About” and an achingly slow “Angel From Montgomery”) and covers ranging from Los Lobos’ “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes” to Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” and INXS’ “Need You Tonight.”
She also ventured into reggae for “Have a Heart” and dove deep into the blues for an acoustic “Love Me Like a Man” and a blistering electric “Spit of Love.”
“Thank you,” she said after “Spit of Love.” “Glad I got that off my chest.”
Before “Angel From Montgomery,” which was written by John Prine, she mentioned that she, Taylor, Prine, Emmylou Harris, Maria Muldaur and many other singer-songwriters all started out together around the same time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“Who would have thought that 50 years later, we’d all still be doing it?” she asked.
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