James Taylor was hailed early in his career as the "new Dylan," but wound up instead as the "new Tony Bennett." That is, he has become the most refined male pop singer of his generation. Last night at Constitution Hall, Taylor artfully mixed his full-throated delivery with nasal inflections. He managed to always sound perfectly relaxed and informal, even as he brought a robust tone and subtle time changes to every line.
Just as Bennett performed with pianist Bill Evans, the jazz legend, so Taylor performed with Bill Payne, a rock legend with Little Feat. Payne's synthesizers and Dan Dugmore's pedal steel guitar gave Taylor the legato backing that Bennett got from his strings. On "Carolina in My Mind," his equivalent of Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," Taylor stretched certain syllables just enough to imply the homesickness without any self-pity. By uncoiling the tension in "Up on the Roof" and "How Sweet It Is," he opened up new spaces in these old songs and filled them with vocal nuances. On "Fire and Rain," by far his best composition, Taylor purposefully shied away from melodramatic climaxes by understating the line endings. Thus he gave it and similar songs an unassuming frankness that made them work better than ever.