For a man whose career began by conveying extreme internal anguish to the masses, James Taylor seems cheery these days. At his Pacific Amphitheatre show Saturday, he engaged the audience with all sorts of good-natured quips and antics, despite a collection of tunes that were often far from upbeat.
Taylor was a yuppie long before the word was invented: a rich white kid whose every lyric celebrated self and sensitivity with capital S's. Judging by the respectful, attentive adulation he received from the visibly up-scale crowd at the amphitheater, Taylor is now an icon among modern-day yuppies--perhaps because his music shares some of the values attributed to up-scale life styles.
Taylor pays fierce attention to the quality of his music--playing precise, pretty acoustic guitar while supported by a tightly arranged band that includes two backup singers (Arnold McCuller and the ever-popular Rosemary Butler, formerly of Jackson Browne's band). Also among the ranks were a lap steel guitar player (Danny Dugmore) as well as age-old Taylor sideman Leland Sklar, guitarist Bob Mann, drummer Carlos Vega and keyboard player-producer Don Guralnick.
But Taylor's songs, once celebrated for their sensitivity, now sound almost wimpy, not to mention dated. Tune after tune about loneliness and love, interspersed with imagery of leaves falling and rainbows ending, wore as thin as Taylor's hairline long before the end of the first set.
Taylor's show, divided into two 45-minute sets, had its share of hits, including "Mexico," "Carolina in My Mind" and "Walking Man."
The more well-known numbers fared better with the audience, especially "Fire and Rain," his first big hit. Despite its depressing subtext (suicide), the song has practically become a classic folk tune, and predictably it received a standing ovation. A lengthy version of the bluesy "Steamroller" and a raucous version of Chubby Checker's "Do the Twist" were also well-received.
But the hits were interspersed with a liberal dose of newer Taylor tunes, all of which could double as Muzak. Taylor seems to be a classic case of a talented person who had a lot more to say earlier in his career. Now that he's successful there doesn't seem to be a lot on his mind.
Fortunately, he is an engaging personality on stage, which in great rock star tradition makes up in entertainment value for some of his inadequacies as a singer and for the lack of emotional resonance in his lyrics.
Taylor opens a four-night engagement at the Universal Amphitheatre Wednesday.