By John McAlley
Remarkably, it has been nearly a quarter-century since James Taylor's breakthrough success with Sweet Baby James and 16 years since "Handy Man" and JT fueled his last significant run up the charts. Despite the comparatively modest sales of five subsequent studio albums, the absence of a Top 10 single and a case of videophobia that has effected his near invisibility on MTV and VH-1, Taylor remains a formidable draw on the concert circuit. As with Jimmy Buffett, Neil Diamond and other baby-boom favorites whose road successes have outpaced their record sales, Taylor's perennial touring has become a ritual for his audience. But as James Taylor Live, his superb new 30-song double CD, makes clear, Taylor's popularity is not merely a case of nostalgia but a testament to the abiding power and depth of his artistry.
In the years since Taylor's coronation as the King of Soft Rock, the most influential and vilified singer/songwriter of his day has also turned out to be the most enduring. Rock critics once rankled by the introspective bent of Taylor's early recordings continue to undervalue the lyricism, humor and idiomatic richness at the heart of his work. If, ultimately, Taylor's recorded output has proven to be more pop than rock, it is pop that combines a profound affinity for indigenous American music, rare compositional sophistication and an almost peerless command of vernacular with a sensibility that has grown more generous with time.
The concert hall, though, is where the blossoming of Taylor's art has been most fully evident. His stage persona, once the picture of reticent dignity, is now spirited and at times downright buoyant. And his singing voice, once mannered and attenuated, has grown agile and assured. On James Taylor Live, songs as far-ranging in style as Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)," the George Jones classic "She Thinks I Still Care," Taylor's show-stopping "Steamroller Blues" and his unrecognized torch masterpiece "You Make It Easy," are given full-throated workouts as Taylor glides effortlessly from soulster and honky-tonk man to blues growler and balladeer.
Long ago, Taylor began taking risks onstage by reworking his standards until they shook off their ennui and gained resolve and vitality. Here, with the support of his impeccable band and a who's who of backing vocalists, Taylor launches into joyous extended codas that nearly redefine "Country Roads" and "Shower the People" and lend exhilarating lift to "Your Smiling Face" and the Goffin-King classic "Up on the Roof." Revelatory, too, are a quietly forceful "Secret o' Life," a souped-up "Traffic Jam" and a fervent "I Will Follow."
Although flawlessly recorded, the set is not without imperfections: "You've Got a Friend" is routine, "Millworker" overarranged, "Caroline In My Mind" sluggish and "Only One" inert. Missing are the richest tunes from Taylor's most recent LPs. "Only a Dream in Rio," "Never Die Young" and "The Frozen Man"—each existential dreamscapes of hypnotic power—would have been welcome.
Still, Taylor's sense of pace and resonance is unerring. If his soul-searching songs of the early '70s, epitomized by "Fire and Rain" and "Sweet Baby James," stand as hymns for the Me Decade, they find their natural extension in the universal spiritualism of "New Hymn" and "That Lonesome Road," the deeply felt psalms that draw the first and second halves of James Taylor Live to a graceful close—and definitively mark Taylor's passage from the world within to the world without.