Toward the end of his set at Carnegie Hall last night, James Taylor recalled the first time he played the venue, 40 years ago this June. "I can't recall that night too clearly," he said to audience laughter. "The Seventies were a blur to me. But if it was the Seventies, this song was surely in the set." He started fingerpicking "Carolina in My Mind." It's a song wrung in homesickness and sadness, but hearing him deliver it so clearly and joyously after 40 years felt like a triumph.
Backed by a 12-piece band, the singer was there to mark the 120th anniversary of the legendary theater, one of four specialty shows he’s been planning for about two years. This one was a benefit for the Weill Music Institute, Carnegie Hall’s educational effort. The second, on April 20th, will focus on his roots – folk, country, blues and early rock. The third will be a guitar workshop, and the final a "best-of" set. It’s a fitting experiment for a man who’s seemed eager to surprise in recent years, whether returning to the Troubadour with Carole King, touring as a one-man band or giving guitar lessons on his web site.
He opened with a beautiful, spare rendition of "There’s No Business Like Show Business," with the giants from Carnegie past projected behind him: Sinatra, Pete Seeger, Ray Charles, Judy Garland, Elton John. Taylor told the sold-out crowd he would to draw from the venue's non-classical history of "folk, jazz, Broadway and pop."
He had a lot of ground to tackle, all right. "I wanted to keep it small. I didn’t want sort of the typical parade of celebrities kind of thing," he told Rolling Stone in March. "I wanted a James Taylor-type evening, which is to try to strip off a couple of layers of shellac and actually have an experience." That's a hard task, especially when your guests include Sting, Bette Midler, Steve Martin and even Bill Clinton, who made a surprise appearance. But Taylor managed to inject himself at the right moments, whether playing straight man in one of Martin’s comedy bits or duetting with 83-year-old Broadway legend Barbara Cook on a Stephen Sondheim number.
Martin was a constant presence throughout the night, though sometimes a distracting one. After Taylor enthusiastically mentioned Pete Seeger’s legendary Carnegie performances, showing a close-up of his banjo onscreen, Martin – banjo in hand – confusingly performed his own "Jubilation Day." (Sample line: "The sex was great / at least that's what my best friend's brother said.") It was hilarious, but an unnecessary detour from the night’s already broad mission.
The evening's Sixties tribute was complete with colorful, psychedelic imagery. Midler sang the 5th Dimension’s "Sweet Blindness" and Sting emerged for the first time for a faithful rendition of the Beatles' "Penny Lane" behind black-and-white images of screaming girls. It was a confusing choice, given the Beatles never even performed the song in concert; it would’ve been more fun to see Taylor and Sting trading Lennon-McCartney harmonies on an early Beatles number. But still, Sting had fun, bouncing and mimicking the trumpet solo with his hands.
Taylor introduced President Bill Clinton (just another rock star in the building), who emerged in a grey suit to rapturous applause. "You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here. I’m here to represent all the musicians who wanted to play Carnegie and weren’t good enough," he joked.
As the night wore on, the focus drifted more from Taylor. Martin mock-hijacked the show at one point, interrupting Taylor to say how great it was to play bluegrass at Carnegie Hall with Sting and guest singers the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, launching into a rapid banjo fingerpicking solo. Taylor shook his head, motioning for him to stop, until they all simultaneously launched into "How Sweet it Is." It was a joke, but after so many guests, it was just a relief to finally hear Taylor sing again.