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POP MUSIC REVIEWS : Taylor Warm, Appealing With Orchestra

November 06, 1995|MIKE BOEHM

COSTA MESA — Shedding had become a problem for James Taylor, and, no, we would not stoop so low as to mock a fellow for the state of his hairline.

Taylor's problem had to do with the increasingly dull state of his quasi-annual summer strolls through the "sheds"--the circuit of big, lucrative, outdoor amphitheaters he routinely plied with big, slick, polished soft-rock bands that replicated the sound of his albums.

Taylor's last Orange County appearance, in 1994 at Irvine Meadows, made it clear that the routine was played out. Many fans streamed for the exits long before the end of the marathon performance, not even pausing when "Fire and Rain" rolled around.

Now Taylor is midway through the first symphonic pops tour of his career, a 22-city itinerary--including performances with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra Friday and Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--in which he is backed by local orchestras and his own understated bass-drums-piano trio. Not exactly a daring move, given the familiarity of that ploy, but an excellent one, nevertheless. When Taylor sang "Fire and Rain" on Friday, conductor Edward Cumming and the orchestra helped him turn it into a grand, swelling anthem, writing large the song's ultra-familiar, but still-arresting portrait of a man struggling in a moment of shock and grief to hang onto his fragile mental balance.

The orchestral backing lent sweep and scope to other Taylor nuggets, including "The Frozen Man," "Millworker" and a splendid "Carolina in My Mind." There wasn't a hint of syrup or bombast, and Taylor's warm, wistful voice remained at the emotional and musical core of every song. The widened aural scope was not achieved at the expense of the personal, intimate feeling that is the essence of his singing and his best songwriting. Taylor also offered two 19th-Century folk songs arranged by Aaron Copland, and a few comfortably fitting selections from the Broadway songbook. The only thing shed during this engaging performance was the tedium of the same old thing.

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