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Music Review: James Taylor provides a high level of comfort

Monday, July 28, 2003

By Scott Mervis, Post-Gazette Weekend Editor

When James Taylor opens his mouth, it's not just a warm tenor that comes out.

It's a cozy fire on a snowy night, it's your favorite pair of old shoes, it's a goose-down quilt, it's home after you've been on the road. It's all those things that we associate with comfort, and it's no wonder that in these troubled times, the Post-Gazette Pavilion would be packed with more than 16,000 fans seeking him out.

Taylor matches that sweet voice with a warm, fatherly presence that is worlds away from the cynical pop industry. He came out Friday night -- in a pair of loose jeans, any old white buttoned-down shirt and the hair on the sides of his head winged out -- with a 12-piece band and the attitude that it was the music that matters.

Taylor could fill a 2 1/2-hour show with hits, but that's not what this concert was about. In fact, amazingly enough, only four of the first 14 songs came off the recent "Best of James Taylor" and one of those was the new track, "Bittersweet." The bulk of it was taken from the tender new "October Road" and 1991's "New Moon Shine."

Each song seemed to showcase a different member of his seamless band. "Mean Old Man," a song that couldn't describe Taylor less, provided Larry Goldings with a jazzy piano interlude. The Stonesy rocker "(I've Got to) Stop Thinking 'Bout That" -- a pace-changer to be sure -- featured Blues Brothers saxophonist Lou Marini. "Steamroller" threw the spotlight on the edgiest member of the group, guitarist Michael Landau. A Phish fan might have hoped that the solos would collide a bit more, but this was not a jam band.

An early highlight was "Shower the People," a usually reserved song that got a stunning gospel-soul finale by backup singer Arnold McCuller. Taylor, who seemed to want to give all credit to the band, turned to McCuller at its conclusion and joked, "sounded good -- sounded maybe a little too good." Most would agree that McCuller, a great counterpart to Taylor, could have been even more a part of the show.

Although the new songs crowded out some of Taylor's standards -- "Traffic Jam," for instance, would have been pretty darn appropriate considering the scene on Route 22/30 -- they were all perfectly in keeping with Taylor's melodic style.

Midway through set two, he turned on the hit machine, and had his faithful jumping out of their seats. "Steamroller" was as bluesy as Taylor gets; "Carolina in My Mind" was as sweet; and "Fire and Rain" ... what can we say about "Fire and Rain" other than to note that it's one of the pillars of the folk-rock genre, and it was delivered so beautifully he couldn't help but smile.

"Mexico," with its steel-drum sound and mariachi feel, was the funkiest song of the evening and a standout among the encores.

Aside from freshening the set list -- with new songs that, frankly, aren't quite as good as the old ones -- Taylor doesn't do a lot to challenge his audience. There are no sounds or messages that rock your world or shake your foundation. It's comfort music, and almost no one does it better.

Scott Mervis can be reached at or 412-263-2576.

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