“We almost forgot to play this,” James Taylor said to the full house at ACL Live on Thursday evening as his 10-piece band eased into the gentle opening of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” near the end of the set. His first No. 1 single in 1971, the song is kind of a must-play for Taylor, one of the best-selling singer-songwriters of all time. But then, he has so many universally-known songs that you could forgive him if a couple of them slipped his mind.
In his first-ever taping of “Austin City Limits” — a surprising fact, given that the music he’s made across five decades always has been a good fit for the program’s sensibilities — Taylor cued up a lot of longtime favorites that have been classic-rock and easy-listening radio staples since the ’70s. But he also refreshingly dug a little deeper into some of his albums, much to the delight of fans who repeatedly expressed their appreciation with cacophonous ovations.
Keeping the smash-hit aces up his sleeve at the outset, Taylor revealingly opened with lesser-known tunes that still reached to the core of his identity as a masterful lyricist with a sweet and personable voice. On the mid-’70s tunes “Wandering” and “Me and My Guitar,” as well as 1991’s “Copperline,” it was instantly apparent that at 67, Taylor has somehow lost absolutely none of his vocal range or quality. When he tipped his trademark flat cap, the loss of hair revealed the passage of time, but musically he sounds as vibrant now as he did in his hitmaking prime.
The occasion for Taylor finally playing ACL was this year’s chart-topping album “Before This World,” his first batch of new material in 10 years, from which he played three songs. A midset highlight from the record was “Angels of Fenway,” which Taylor wrote after his beloved Boston Red Sox won the world series in 2004. An intro explaining baseball’s legendary “curse of the Bambino” drew a smattering of lighthearted boos from presumed Yankees in the crowd, but the song was a solid ground-rule double, allowing many members of his first-class band to shine.
That led into the most hit-heavy portion of the night. “We’re not in Lubbock but at least we’re in Texas, so we’re going to sing a Buddy Holly tune,” Taylor remarked as the band began “Everyday,” which charted for Taylor when he covered it on his 1985 album “That’s Why I’m Here.” Next came the big guns: “Carolina in My Mind” from his very first album (and now North Carolina’s official state song), the bluesy stomper “Steamroller,” the nearly-forgotten “You’ve Got a Friend,” Taylor’s self-referential signature “Sweet Baby James,” and finally the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved By You),” which Taylor took to No. 5 in 1975.
He returned to the new album for the tender main set closer “You and I Again,” which found Taylor, 67, looking beyond his own mortality. “It’s a song about love over time,” he said in a brief introduction, “and maybe over more than one lifetime.”
A wonderful surprise came when he brought out Shawn Colvin, proudly introducing her as “Austin’s own,” to begin a three-song encore. The two delivered a beautiful duet of “You Can Close Your Eyes” from Taylor’s 1971 album “Mud Slide Slim” before he brought the band back out to close the show with an upbeat one-two punch of the ’70s hits “Mexico” and “Your Smiling Face” — leaving the crowd with plenty of smiling faces, indeed.
The 18-song performance, which ran for an hour and 40 minutes, will be edited down for an hourlong “Austin City Limits” broadcast set to air Nov. 14.
The set list:
Me and My Guitar
Today Today Today
Line ’Em Up
Shed a Little Light
Angels of Fenway
Carolina in My Mind
You’ve Got A Friend
Sweet Baby James
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)
You and I Again
You Can Close Your Eyes (with Shawn Colvin)
Your Smiling Face
James Taylor — guitar, vocals
Jimmy Johnson — bass/bandleader
Andrea Zonn — violin, vocals
Kate Markowitz — vocals
Arnold McCuller — vocals
Michael Landau — guitar
Larry Goldings — keyboards, accordion
Lou Marini — sax, clarinet, flute
Walt Fowler — trumpet, flugelhorn, keys
Steve Gadd — drums
Luis Conte — percussion
Shawn Colvin — guest vocals on “You Can Close Your Eyes”