James Taylor is the Tony Bennett of his generation, an elegant pop singer with refined phrasing, luxurious tone and disarming ease. Taylor's singing has survived the years a lot better than his songwriting, and last night at sold-out Merriweather Post Pavilion, he was at his best on pop standards such as Otis Blackwell's "Handy Man," Buddy Holly's "Everyday" and Goffin & King's "Up on the Roof," translating the adolescent sexual tension of these early rock-and-roll hits into a mature, calm satisfaction.
A handful of Taylor's originals ("Fire and Rain," "Country Road" and "Carolina in My Mind") showed the staying power of standards, but most of his newer songs gave his marvelous voice too little melody to work with. He opened the show with "Secret of Life," done as a simple duet with jazz pianist Don Grolnick. He followed that with "Close Your Eyes," done as a lovely soul harmony number with such notable singers as David Lasley, Phillip Ballou and Valerie Carter. Finally the whole band came out for "Sweet Potato Pie."
Michael Landau, this year's hot session guitarist in L.A., lived up to his reputation by building "Country Road" to a rocking crescendo and by mimicking Taylor's languid lyricism on "Sweet Baby James."