During James Taylor’s first set at Wolf Trap last week, Ari Strauss (who shot the photos accompanying this post) leaned over to me and remarked that he hadn’t been aware of just how funny Taylor really is. Taylor is, indeed very funny, and charming, and seems like a genuinely good guy: He embraced and shook hands with his band members as he introduced them over the course of the set, and there appeared to be real affection. During the intermission, he signed autographs for folks in the first couple of rows.
It’s easy to see why James was (and still is) an object of desire for so many women, including his former wife, fellow singer-songwriter Carly Simon. He’s always been attractive, and with age has just come more dignity and gravitas. It doesn’t hurt that he’s quite tall. He writes great, emotional songs, many of which have become modern classics. With his talent, looks, intelligence, and charm, he’s got appeal.
After playing the first song of the evening on Sept. 7, “Something In The Way She Moves,” James shared, in some detail, the story behind the song and the beginning of his musical career. In 1968, he said, he played it for Paul McCartney and George Harrison, the latter of whom “liked it so much he went home and wrote it again himself.” The Beatles had recently formed their own label, Apple Records, and Taylor was the first artist they signed.
With his first two, classic records, James Taylor and Sweet Baby James, Taylor jumpstarted the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s. His influence can be seen in artists ranging from Mary Chapin Carpenter to John Mayer, Dar Williams to James Blunt, Mark Kozelek to Ben Folds. James played many of the classic tunes from those albums in his show. He told the audience that the interpretation of his second song, “Rainy Day Man,” as being about a heroin dealer was not one that occurred to him when he wrote it, “but it works.” I learned that “Sweet Baby James” was written as a lullaby for his nephew, who is named after him.
Two more of these early-career tunes, “Steamroller” and “Country Road,” made their way into the first set, and he played “Fire and Rain,” perhaps his most recognizable song, in the second set.
Watch James Taylor perform “Fire and Rain” live in 2007 via YouTube:
There were songs about Taylor’s home state of North Carolina: the aforementioned “Carolina In My Mind” and “Down On Copperline.” There were songs full of wisdom: “Everybody Has The Blues” is a message you may not to hear when you’re sad, but it’s true, and he started the second set by sharing the “Secret O’ Life.”
Introducing Mona, James told a winding story about how he had ended up owning a pig for six years. He and his brother got into an argument over which was the smarter animal, a dog or a pig, which led to him adopting “Mona.” Sadly, he lost her when she ate rat poison he had out to get rid of vermin in her enclosure.
In addition to his own tunes, the two sets included several covers at Wolf Trap. He played two songs by his good friend Carole King: “Up On The Roof” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Some Days You’ve Got To Dance,” (which he learned while touring with the Dixie Chicks in support of John Kerry’s presidential campaign), and Eddie Cochrane’s “Summertime Blues,” which kicked off the encore. Other songs included “Mexico,” “You Make It Easy,” “Raised Up Family,” “Shower the People,” and “Your Smiling Face,” which concluded the second hit. For his encore, after the Cochrane song, he played “Shed A Little Light” and “Close Your Eyes.”
There’s a reason James Taylor has had such a long career: he’s really good. He writes great songs, and he’s an engaging, entertaining live performer. As we left Wolf Trap Thursday night, Ari and I agreed this was one of the better shows we’d seen lately.
Here are some photos of James Taylor performing at Wolf Trap on Sept. 7, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss.