DULUTH — Be forewarned: While the following is intended as a review of the Aug. 17 James Taylor/Jackson Browne concert at the Gas South Arena here, it is going to come off more as a fawning love letter to two of rock and roll’s greatest singer/songwriters.
Because, in truth, that’s what it is.
How else can you write about an event that was so transformative, an event that brought tears to these eyes, an event that brought such joy to this old heart of mine, an event that made me so glad to be alive?
Maybe it was partially a reaction to the year-plus of COVID-induced semi-isolation. Maybe it was the opportunity to finally see Browne perform live, one of my musical bucket list items (I’d seen J.T. perform before). Or maybe it was just the outpouring of hope and exhilaration of seeing these great veteran artists prove how viable they still are and how well their songs have stood the test of time.
I’m sure it was a little of all of that ... and so much more.
Jackson Browne is, I believe, one of the best five or six songwriters ever. You could take “The Pretender,” “Sky Blue and Black” and “These Days,” and that would be enough to qualify him. But as Browne’s fans know, those are just the tip of the ice burg when it comes to his deep, poignant catalog.
(A confession: When the concert started, and I heard that familiar, wonderful voice sing “I’m Alive” — a song to which I absolutely relate — tears flowed uncontrollably down my cheeks. In those first couple of minutes, the concert was well worth the price of admission.)
I’ve learned to never complain when an artist with such a rich catalog does not play a favorite song. (I honestly thought Eric Clapton fans were going to revolt at the same venue a few years back when the veteran guitarist did not — gasp! — play his all-time classic “Layla” ... as if that was his only defining moment. Damned yuppies.) I had in my mind any number of songs from master singer/songwriter Browne’s decades of classics, but I was just so overjoyed to hear the songs he wanted to sing on this night.
I marveled again how poignantly Browne perceives the world around him — in “The Long Way Around,” he sang of “... letting go two or three disasters ago” — insight those of us who listen can only experience through his songs. My faith in my beliefs was renewed as he sang “Until Justice Is Real.”
The first big surprise of the night — and I don’t know why it was such a surprise, perhaps it was just that I was so caught up in the moment — was when Browne said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. James Taylor.” I literally broke out in gooseflesh as the familiar icon ambled onstage. That Taylor sang with Browne on two of the latter artist’s all-time classic songs — “The Pretender” and “Running on Empty” — was a memory to cherish for the ages.
(It was such a cool moment when Browne said, “James, you gonna stick around with us?” seconds before the the familiar piano/guitar intro to “Running on Empty” brought the 13,000 or so at the Gas South Arena to their feet.)
Of the literally hundreds of concerts I’ve seen in my lifetime, when Browne left the stage and the houselights came up, signifying no encore, I’ve never been so disappointed to see a show end. But the thrill of the performance — musically, vocally and visually — would not allow me to focus on any downside.
As the roadies (and wouldn’t it have been great to hear Browne do “The Load Out/Stay?” ... OK, no griping) set up what would be an elaborate and awe-inspiring stage set for Taylor’s performance, I listened to some music critics behind me talk about how James Taylor’s voice “sounded weak” while singing backing vocals on “The Pretender” and “Running on Empty.” I almost turned around and said, “Dudes, he was only singing backing vocals; he was not trying to usurp anything from the guy singing the songs.” But I kept quiet, thinking to myself, “Just wait and see.”
It didn’t take long for that to happen. After an emotional video montage of just regular folks singing Taylor’s songs, the man called “Sweet Baby” immediately won the crowd over with a stirring rendition of the “Sweet Baby James” classic “Country Road.” And the musical high points just kept coming.
Taylor told of how he came to write the second verse of “That’s Why I’m Here” after learning of the death of his friend, comedian John Belushi.
“I was dealing with my own issues, and that literally scared me sober,” the singer said. “I’m sure there are a lot of you here who have your own issues, so this song is for those of you dealing with recovery.” The crowd cheered wildly, and Taylor added, “We’ve got a lot of songs for you who are f--ed up, too.”
As marvelous as the music was, another awe-inspiring element of the evening was the stage, which was decorated with a tree that helped highlight the digital splendor that accompanied choice tunes. One shining example was “Mexico.” As Taylor and his All-Star Band (which was) hit the chorus, the backdrop exploded with an array of bright colors that brought a festive atmosphere to the arena.
Taylor didn’t hold back during his 18-song performance, mixing familiar tunes from throughout his career with rarities like “Easy as Rollin’ Off a Log,” which was from his COVID-era “American Standards” album and, Taylor noted, inspired by an old “Merry Melodies” cartoon, which played on a “TV set” digital display and provided a lighter moment to the evening.
Of course, most fans want the hits when they watch a prolific artist like Taylor, and he didn’t disappoint: “Copperline,” “Steamroller Blues,” “Sweet Baby James,” “Fire and Rain,” “Carolina in My Mind,” “Shower the People,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You).”
Then came a stirring four-song encore that was itself a marvel. It started with the moving, lovely “Shed a Little Light” that featured Taylor’s backup singers (including his son, Henry). Then Taylor called Browne to the stage, and they duetted on “Take It Easy,” a song Browne co-wrote that became The Eagles’ breakthrough hit. Browne stayed for a moving rendition of Taylor’s Carole King-penned classic “You’ve Got a Friend,” and then everyone but Taylor and his son left the stage.
Backing themselves with acoustic guitars, the Taylor’s wowed the crowd one last time and ended the night on an emotional high with their take on Taylor’s lovely “You Can Close Your Eyes.”
It’s the music fan-boy in me that leads me to declare that this show vaulted into my all-time Top 5 concerts list, a declaration that has not worn off in the few days since returning to southwest Georgia and reality. But it’s the human being in me that left me with a final, decisive thought as I walked to the car after the show: “If I die now, I die happy.”