‘Sweet Baby James’ dazzles audience

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First Posted: 12/2/2014

Legendary singer-songwriter James Taylor brought an all-star band and two sets full of classics to the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza on Monday.

The five-time Grammy winner and inductee of both the Songwriters and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, now 66, looked fit as a fiddle as he strolled onto the stage in a plaid shirt, sweater and jeans and picked up his acoustic guitar. Taylor was in fine voice throughout the evening as he sang his hits and a couple of new tunes while fondly reminiscing about his more than 45-year career.

Monday’s opening number, “Something in the Way She Moves,” came from his self-titled debut album of 1968.

“That’s not the first song I wrote, but it’s the earliest one I’m willing to play in public,” Taylor said as he recalled playing it at his audition in “a small room in London for Paul McCartney and George Harrison” before becoming the first non-British act signed to The Beatles’ Apple Records. The title phrase of that first song later served as the starting point for Harrison’s “Something.”

Taylor followed up with new song “Today, Today, Today” and “Lo and Behold,” a deep album cut from his 1970 breakthough “Sweet Baby James.”

Taylor worked his way through classics like his own “Copperline” and “Country Road” and Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” in the first set, and slowly introduced his band throughout the show – band leader and bassist Jimmy Johnson, guitarist Michael Landau, drummer Steve Gadd, percussionist Luis Conte, saxophonist “Blue” Lou Marini (best known for his work in the Blues Brothers), trumpeter/keyboardist Walt Fowler, pianist Jim Cox, fiddler and background vocalist Andrea Zonn, and background vocalists Arnold McCuller and Kate Markowitz.

A tale of dealing with homesickness while in London recording his debut album led to “Carolina in My Mind,” and the phrase “Now the First of December was covered with snow” elicited cheers on his famous cowboy lullaby “Sweet Baby James,” written for his namesake nephew in 1969.

Taylor joked about the upcoming intermission – “I don’t know why we do it. I just stand behind that curtain there and look at my watch for 20 minutes.”—before the first-set capper “Shower the People.” He then spent the intermission sitting at the front of the stage signing autographs and taking pictures with his fans.

As the dimming of the houselights didn’t draw Taylor back to work, the band began without him before he finally stood up and grabbed his guitar for new song “Stretch of the Highway.” Another new one, “You and I Again” followed, and then it was on to “Raised Up Family” from 2002’s “October Road,” his most recent album of newly written material.

Taylor tried for laughs during blues parody “Steamroller” as he contorted his face, sang from the side of his mouth mumbling the words and played an electric guitar for the only time all evening. After a decent harmonica solo by Taylor, Landau unleashed a wicked guitar solo and saved the song from going completely off the rails.

Following “Only One” from his 1986 album “That’s Why I’m Here,” it was one classic after another as Taylor and his band headed down the homestretch. First up was “Fire and Rain,” Taylor’s first Top 40 hit from 1970, then his take on the Gerry Goffin and Carole King standard “Up on the Roof,” then his own “Mexico” as the horn section donned colorful sombreros and Conte showed why he is one of the music world’s premier percussion players.

The main set ended with a jubilant “Your Smiling Face” as background vocalist McCuller danced with and hugged members of the first row.

The three-song encore included Taylor’s Top 5 remake of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” and his only Billboard Hot 100 number one, “You’ve Got a Friend.” He then finished up with the traditional Scottish tune “Wild Mountain Thyme.”

“Thank you for spending the evening with us,” Taylor said as the large crowd thanked him for the wonderful evening of soothing music with one standing ovation after another.