James Taylor
at the Hersheypark Stadium, Hershey, Pa.
(11 July 2001)

All he had to do was walk onstage.

With the sun hanging low in the southwestern sky, a cool breeze blowing away the afternoon's residual heat and his band laying down a low-key groove, the massive crowd in Hersheypark Stadium was primed to respond the moment they caught a glimpse of James Taylor.

And the instant he strolled into view, casually dressed in khaki slacks and a baby-blue shirt, the crowd was on its feet, cheering in anticipation of the show to come.

Taylor launched right into "Everyday," one of many signature songs which marked the night's three-hour performance. "It's nice to see you all tonight," he then greeted the audience, speaking as if to a small gathering of friends. "And what a nice night it turned out to be. ... How ya been?"

He was nothing if not a gracious host, chatting familiarly about his music, complimenting a fan's banner, waving and offering advice on the proper use of binoculars between songs like "That's Why I'm Here," "Only One," "Raised Up Family" and "Line 'Em Up." "The Frozen Man" is based on a National Geographic story about an unfortunate sailor who'd lain unmolested for more than a century in a shallow Arctic grave until "they found him, took a picture, I saw it and wrote this song," Taylor explained.

New songs also made their way into the show, including "Never Regret It (Whenever You're Ready)" and "The Fourth of July." "They sound just like the old ones," Taylor quipped.

As evening deepened into twilight and the stagelights grew more vivid, Taylor shared the spotlight with his bandmates as they ran through old and new favorites such as "Mexico," "Shower the People" (featuring Arnold McCuller on vocals) and "Steamroller."

"This is a great show -- everything we expected and a little bit more," said Bill Forsythe of Bloomsburg, Pa., during a brief intermission. He and his wife, Deb, have been Taylor fans since the early '70s, he said, "but we never got to see him before."

Penn State student Ashley Keefer, a native of Pittsburgh, said she was living her mother's dream. "I never heard James Taylor before I hit college," she admitted. "It's weird, but now I love this music. There's so much depressing music in the world, but when you put on James Taylor, you feel great."

After shaking the hands of front-row fans, Taylor began the second set solo with "Carolina in My Mind." The lineup continued with "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," the hopeless "Millworker," "Up on the Roof" and "Copperline" -- with Taylor pouring emotion into each song and obvious glee into the entire performance.

The crowd of 12,000-plus notwithstanding, this was no big-venue concert. Taylor's easygoing and affable manner transformed it effortlessly into a backyard barbecue, an intimate gathering of friends. Taylor has been a mainstay on the singer-songwriter circuit -- and some would say is its founder -- since the late '60s. A member of both the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, he has released more than 20 albums.

Sharing the stage on his 2001 "Pull Over" tour were backing vocalists McCuller, David Lasley, Valerie Carter and Kate Markowitz, plus Clifford Carter on keyboards, Jimmy Johnson on bass, Russ Kunkel and Luis Conte on percussion, Bob Mann on guitar, Walt Fowler on trumpet and horn, and Lou Marini on sax and whistle.

Taylor entered the final stretch with the reverential "Shed a Little Light" before plowing through some of his best-known tunes: "Fire And Rain," "You've Got a Friend," "Your Smiling Face" and "How Sweet It Is" -- the last of which brought nearly the entire crowd to its feet.

The roaring throng pulled Taylor and his band back for two encores, featuring "Traffic Jam" and "Knock On Wood" in the first, "You Can Close Your Eyes" and "Sweet Baby James" in the second, before sending everyone off into the tranquil night. Humming.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 10 August 2001

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