James Taylor isn't quite himself when he performs in a symphonic pop setting. Such was the case when the Washington Performing Arts Society presented the singer-songwriter at the Kennedy Center Monday night.
Not only is Taylor more reserved in an orchestral environment; he's more romantic, more optimistic, more, well, old-fashioned. So much so that when someone shouted out a request for the raucous "Steamroller Blues," after Taylor and his three-piece band had loosened up with a funk-fortified version of "Country Road," the audience and the orchestra couldn't help but erupt with laughter. "That's fine for you to say," Taylor shot back, "but what about my needs?"
Yet it would take something far more dramatic than a change of musical venue to diminish the appeal of Taylor's unmistakable Carolinian voice or compromise his first-rate song craft. Evidence of both virtues was abundant as Taylor casually but expressively moved through a set list that alternated his own tunes with such pop standards as "The Way You Look Tonight," "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." He brought a warm and simple tunefulness to the pop classics, some of which, he confessed, he was forced to listen to as a child. Free of glib mannerisms, they were delivered in a voice that often sounded as if it belonged to the family of reed instruments supporting it.
If the borrowed songs suggested the career course Taylor might have taken in the pre-rock era, the original tunes illustrated how some of his own pieces, including "Carolina in My Mind" and "Fire and Rain," have transcended generational tastes. Some of the symphonic charts performed by the orchestra--a fine ensemble composed of area musicians--offered little more than melodic sweetening, but particularly evocative orchestral arrangements were reserved for two of Taylor's finest narrative ballads, "Millworker" and "The Frozen Man."