NEW YORK — Would you vote for James Taylor? It’s a question you probably haven’t pondered before. But when the veteran singer-songwriter — hell, the archetypal singer-songwriter — took the stage at New York’s Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night (April 20), looking freshly pressed in a charcoal suit and plain blue shirt, his balding pate neatly trimmed, he looked so much like a political hopeful preparing to deliver a stump speech that it almost seemed incongruous when he sat down on a stool and hoisted an acoustic guitar. Political ambitions aside, Taylor was presumably just paying his sartorial respects to the institution in whose history he has become enmeshed.
When Taylor made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1970, as an up-and-coming 22-year-old troubadour supporting his breakthrough album, Sweet Baby James, few would have guessed that four decades later, he’d be an iconic elder statesman of American music, helping the hallowed hall to celebrate its 120th anniversary.
Nevertheless, the first installment of his “Perspectives” series at Carnegie on April 12 was a gala event commemorating the venue’s anniversary with Taylor backed by an orchestra and joined onstage by everyone from Bette Midler to Bill Clinton. Each of the four shows in the series spotlights a different side of Taylor, though, and on Wednesday, the agenda was his musical roots. Despite Taylor’s attire, this meant performing the country, folk and blues tunes that he grew up loving. Singing alongside a handpicked roster of rootsy legends like Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas and Robert Cray, he showed how it all fit into his own classic output.
Beginning his set with a six-piece band that included hotshot country fiddler Andrea Zonn (a member of Union Station before Krauss joined the band in the late ’80s), Taylor opened with “Secret o’ Life.” The line “might as well show some style” seemed particularly apropos to the setting. He went on to introduce Douglas, a Dobro deity, who joined in on a version of the traditional folk tune “Ol’ Blue,” which they’d first played together as guests on Mark O’Connor’s 1989 album On the Mark. But after a verse or two, Taylor wryly commented, “That’s enough of that,” and segued into his own folk-tinged 1991 hit “Copperline,” intending to show the influence of the former.
A version of Stephen Foster’s hymn-like “Hard Times,” which Taylor initially sang on 1981’s Dad Loves His Work album, sported some characteristically tasty licks from Douglas, as did Taylor’s early classic, “Carolina in My Mind,” before the Dobro hero led the band in a chugging bluegrass/rock fusion on “Hey Joe,” which he described as a tune “by that great bluegrass composer Jimi Hendrix” (For the record, it was written by ’60s folksinger Billy Roberts).
After the obligatory — but not perfunctory — run through “Fire and Rain,” Taylor started musing about country’s tradition of truck-driving songs, mentioning “Brother Trucker,” his contribution to the ’70s musical Working, and launched into Dave Dudley’s 1963 country-pop crossover smash “Six Days on the Road.” A Taylor-ized take on the hymn “Jerusalem” and a Douglas-adorned version of the singer’s 1988 hit “Never Die Young” preceded the host’s introduction of “perhaps the best singer there is,” at which point Alison Krauss appeared, casually stylish in tunic, black coat and boots.
When she fretted aloud that this was “a very scary way to introduce somebody,” Taylor jokingly added, “Just coming back from her grueling throat surgery.” Krauss joined him on a dreamy stroll through the old Ian & Sylvia folk ballad “Someday Soon” and damn near lived up to Taylor’s introduction with “Never Never Land,” from the 1954 Peter Pan musical. (Taylor identified this as part of a seam of show tunes in his parents’ record collection that helped shape his musical identity.) Following a version of his early-’70s hit “Country Road” — a reminder of just how much contemporary Nashville owes to the Taylor catalog — an intermission was called.
The show’s second half kicked off with Taylor’s longtime collaborator Danny Kortchmar singing his own “Machine Gun Kelly,” a roots-rocking tune slightly reminiscent of The Band, which appeared on Taylor’s 1971 Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon album. Kortchmar, better known as “Kootch,” was a part of Taylor’s mid-’60s band, the Flying Machine, which was the genesis of the next two tunes, the bluesy “Night Owl” and laid-back “Rainy Day Man.”
Confessing that the Flying Machine had wanted to be a blues band but were simply “pimply adolescents in from the suburbs in the family station wagon,” Taylor led into his satirical blues song “Steamroller” and then declared, “Why mess around? We’ve got the real thing” by way of introducing Robert Cray. Dressed so similarly to Taylor that he could have been the running mate on his campaign ticket, Cray nevertheless tore things up on blues standard “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” delivering the most visceral performance of the entire evening and traded verses with Taylor on Jimmy Reed’s “Going to New York” before his exit.
Heading into the homestretch, Taylor reminisced about growing up listening to North Carolina radio stations, which at the time offered “country music, and that was it.” He underlined the influence of George Jones before kicking off a cover of the Possum’s 1955 hit “Why Baby Why,” which also appeared on Taylor’s recent studio album, aptly titled Covers. Krauss reappeared for the tune, forming a two-woman string section with Zonn.
Krauss and Taylor then revisited their duet of the Louvin Brothers song “How’s the World Treating You,” which they recorded for a 2003 tribute to the Country Music Hall of Fame members. The evanescent beauty of their harmonies made for one of the night’s most stirring emotional moments. Taylor tossed out two more of his ’70s hits — “Your Smiling Face” and “Up on the Roof” — and then informed the audience that although his originally scheduled guests Vince Gill and Amy Grant had become unavailable due to a family emergency, a rather stellar replacement had been found.
With the crowd’s curiosity audibly piqued, the Carnegie stage was soon occupied by the elegant figure of none other than Tony Bennett, who received a rapturous standing ovation before uttering a word. Bennett and Taylor chimed in together for a spry, spontaneous-sounding take on another of the latter’s old Broadway favorites, “Put on a Happy Face.” A second ovation bade Bennett farewell, and Taylor continued the theme by closing things out with a gentle, jazzy version of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” from Oklahoma, ending not with a bang but with a sweet Americana sigh.View photos from the concert.