Let’s take a trip with James Taylor, back to 1968. He’s down on his luck, back home in North Carolina after an ill-fated attempt to launch a band in New York. His parents graciously spring for a ticket to London to visit a friend.
“It wasn’t a career move or anything,” Taylor told Wednesday’s audience at the Erwin Center in a long but fascinating intro to “Carolina in My Mind,” which he wrote that year. “I just took my guitar and some songs and went over there to hang out. But soon after I got there, I ran into some people who were very encouraging about the music.”
One thing led to another, and with the help of budding producer Peter Asher, Taylor wound up recording his first album for the Beatles’ Apple Records — while John, Paul, George and Ringo were in the same studio making the White Album.
“I was just in the right place at the right time. I was a huge Beatles fan and couldn’t believe my luck,” he continued. “I got to sit in a lot, listen back to their playbacks, watch their process. It was as if I was surrounded by a heavenly host of my absolute idols. But at the same time, I was really homesick for North Carolina.”
That was the best of several stories Taylor told between the two dozen songs both old and new he delivered beautifully to an adoring audience. Backed by a world-class 10-piece crew — plus his son Henry joining in on harmonies for a couple of numbers — Taylor proved that at 68, he remains a leading light from the golden age of American singer-songwriters.
It wasn’t a packed house; the Erwin Center was set up in its theater-style configuration, which uses roughly half of the venue’s capacity. But the venue allowed a lot more people to see Taylor than the lucky 2,500 or so who scored tickets to last fall’s “Austin City Limits” taping.
These fans also got more time with Taylor, who played 18 songs at the taping but 24 here, split into two sets plus an encore. The biggest difference was the inclusion of perhaps his finest song, “Fire and Rain,” which came near the end of the first set and rightfully drew a standing ovation.
The song also demonstrated the brilliance of Taylor’s phrasing onstage. He makes subtle changes that keep the songs from sounding exactly like the recordings, but not so different as to be off-putting. On record, there’s a line in the chorus where he reaches high — “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.” In concert, he kept that line lower in the first chorus, pushed it up a bit in the second, then finally hit the full payoff the last time through.
And if the sound quality at the Erwin Center sometimes leaves fans with basketball-arena ennui, on this night it was nearly pristine-perfect. Whether the spotlight was on solos from the likes of Blues Brothers horn man Lou Marini, violinist-vocalist Andrea Zonn or legendary Latin percussionist Luis Conte, the music always sounded good — never cranked up too high, but also always easily audible. Most importantly, Taylor’s voice came through loud and clear.
Though he worked in several songs from last year’s chart-topping album “Before This World” — most notably the Boston Red Sox-inspired story “Angels of Fenway” — Taylor playfully acknowledged early on that he’d be happy to sing the hits as well. “I know y’all don’t come here to hear new music,” he said in a sly introduction to “Montana” from the new record. “But they sound just like the old ones anyway!”
Ever the consummate professional, Taylor took time to sign ticket stubs, album covers and such for dozens of fans at the lip of the stage during the intermission. And at the end of the night, as he gathered the band for the beautiful closer “You and I Again,” Taylor exclaimed to the crowd, “You guys are Austintatious! No wonder Austin is known as a fantastic music city!” A bit corny, perhaps, but it still seemed sincere, coming from Sweet Baby James.
2. Secret o’ Life
5. Today Today Today
6. Country Road
7. I Was a Fool to Care
9. Carolina in My Mind
10. Sun on the Moon
11. Fire and Rain
12. Shed a Little Light
13. Up on the Roof
14. You’ve Got a Friend
15. The Promised Land
16. Shower the People
17. Angels of Fenway
18. Sweet Baby James
21. Your Smiling Face
22. Knock on Wood
23. How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)
24. You and I Again