James Taylor w/ Jackson Brown Maverik Center October 22, 2021
Reviewed by Kevin Rolfe
There are some concerts that even though you’re there you still can’t really believe you’re actually watching. Friday, Oct 22, 2021, was one of those concerts. Legendary singer-songwriter, James Taylor finally played the Maverik Center after needing to postpone the original date due to the pandemic. Where have we heard that before? Basically every show we’re seeing was meant to have happened before this concert hating virus came into play. But there we were, finally packing the West Valley arena. And not only were we getting to see the great James Taylor, but Jackson Browne, a headliner in his own right, was his opener. It just doesn’t get much better than this.
There seemed to be some issues outside with the parking. I’m not sure exactly what was going on, but I could tell a lot of people were pretty frustrated. I thought I had given myself plenty of time but I was starting to get nervous that I wasn’t going to make it in time for Jackson Browne. I found somewhere to park and hopped on a Bird Scooter. It wasn’ long until I realized this was a flash of genius (doesn’t happen often!) as I zipped by all the cars still waiting to get into the lots. This move made it possible to get into the Maverik Center, get my photo pass, and get to my spot.
I got my camera lens attached and ready just in time to see Jackson Browne walk on stage. The crowd cheered as if he was the only one they’d be seeing this night. Browne has such a smooth voice and an easy going stage presence. He’s written so many wonderful songs, one of them was the opening song of the evening, “Somebody’s Baby”. That song always reminds me of the coming of age 80s classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High as the song is featured in the film and on the soundtrack. We were off to a good start. A large portion of the audience was already there. It was pretty clear that they weren’t going to miss Browne’s performance.
Jackson Browne quickly featured his incredible backup vocalists in the show. New vocalist for Browne, Tiffany Cross and Jackson tour staple, Alethea Mills majorly impacted songs like “Barricades of Heaven” and “Long Way Around”, and later on “The Dreamer”. I could have listened to the three of them harmonize all night. The singers and the entire band really complimented Browne for the entire set. He has chosen just the right ensemble to tour with.
Browne shared with us that he wrote “Fountain of Sorrow” for someone he broke up with. He mentioned that they broke up for good reasons. But he started to wonder why they had actually broken up. Like many of us do he just remembered the good things about the relationship only to later be reminded of the reasons they didn’t work. He then stated that this song was a more generous song than she deserved. The audience laughed then cheered at the comment. It was a pretty great intro to the song.
Jackson performed a couple of songs from his latest album, Downhill From Everywhere. The title track, “Until Justice is Real” and the previously mentioned, “The Dreamer”. He co-wrote “The Dreamer” with Eugene Rodriquez giving some perspective on the fear of deportation and struggles many immigrants have had in recent years. He mentioned that his Norweigan grandmother came to America when she was only 16. Tiffany Cross and Alethea Mills brilliantly performed the beautiful harmonies on this song.
I have been to a lot of concerts. I have only seen the headliner come out and perform with the opener one other time. Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters came out to play drums for Cage The Elephant for one song because their drummer had broken his arm earlier that week so he helped out for a song. This time, Jackson Browne told the audience that he and his band were the biggest James Taylor fans in the world. He thanked the crowd for holding onto their tickets. He then welcomed James Taylor on stage to perform “The Pretender” with him. The audience flew to their feet and roared. After the song, Jackson said, “Excuse me while I pinch myself”. The fans were in shock. You just don’t ever see this.
James Taylor remained on stage and played acoustic guitar during Browne’s closer, “Running on Empty”. The crowd remained on their feet and what was already a very energetic and receptive crowd had become elevated. Jackson Browne did an incredible job opening for James Taylor. It’s hard to think of him as an opener really. He has so many great songs and is such a legend himself that it was simply an honor to get to finally see him in concert.
There was a buzz in the air following Jackson Browne’s set. We just finished listening to so many hit songs, and now the anticipation was growing knowing that James Taylor was next. I’ve only had the opportunity to see James Taylor once. A friend invited me to see him perform with the Tabernacle Choir. It was really good, and I was excited to see him but he didn’t perform many songs. I’m thinking six. But he could have performed ten. Still not enough. So I was really excited for this concert. It seems like ages ago it was announced. Finally seeing it all play out was fantastic.
Taylor opened with “Country Road” then “Copper Line”. People were giddy. I looked around and people were bursting with excitement. I was right there with them. There was a moment when I was taking photos that I walked by Drew, Maverik Center’s Marketing Director who also had camera in hand. Both of us were smiling. We were both wearing masks mind you, but our smiles were so big our masks couldn’t hide them. I said, “This is awesome!”. He responded with, “I love James Tayor”. I followed with, “Same here. How amazing is it that we get to do this?!” It really was surreal that I was down on that arena floor taking photos of this songwriting legend.
James Taylor dedicated “That’s Why I’m Here” to his late friend John Belushi. He told us that Belushi’s untimely death was a wake-up call for him and the song was for people in recovery. I was unaware that he was so close to John Belushi. I bet his death was a huge shock to the system. I’m glad James Taylor changed his ways so that he could still be with us.
I really liked Taylor’s performance of “Mexico”. He gave it an authentic Latin reboot which made the song that much better. I feel like the night was full of situations like this. “Steamroller” was a huge number as well. It’s a bluesy number, to begin with, but he really bluesed it up! He made all these exaggerated faces that blues players make when they’re playing guitar. It was fun watching him really get into these numbers that he’s played thousands of times.
A funny moment in the show was when a fan requested that he play a song. I couldn’t hear what the song was, but I’m guessing by Taylor’s reaction it’s one of his big ones. He didn’t seem annoyed as much as befuddled that someone would request a song he was clearly going to do. That should be a lesson to you all out there. If you have a chance to request a song, maybe don’t ask for the huge hit song they’re for sure going to do. James Taylor jokingly pulled up his huge setlist (usually it’s on a piece of printer paper. This thing was like three feet tall!) and pointed to the song.
Taylor’s band was phenomenal. Talented musician after talented musician. One that stood out to me was his saxophone player, Lou Marini. He was in the Blues Brothers band and one a member of the original band Saturday Night Live band. I’ve seen that movie and watched early SNL many times so it was really cool to see him in person. Trumpet player, Walter Fowler is a native of Salt Lake City so he received a generous welcome home applause. Really, every one of these band members has a long list of credentials of their own. I liked how the backup singers would move around the stage and end up joining together when it was time to sing. One of the backup singers was James Taylor’s son, Henry. I’d imagine it’s pretty great to be able to bring him out on tour.
The time came in the show where Taylor performed heavy hitter after heavy hitter. My favorite James Taylor song is “Sweet Baby James”. It was performed perfectly. That was really the stand out thing for me, Taylors voice. James Taylor’s voice is timeless and ageless. I marveled that so many of his songs sounded so good. He genuinely still “has it”. “Sweet Baby James” was followed by “Fire & Rain”. What a moving and beautiful song again performed to perfection. The second it was finished, the audience rose to their feet and gave a lengthy standing ovation.
“Fire & Rain” was followed by “Carolina In My Mind”, “Shower the People” and, “How Sweet it Is”. Like I said, heavy hitters. “Carolina In My Mind” was enhanced by extraordinary harmonies. Like so many it’s one of my favorite songs in James Taylor’s vast catalog. But this version was my favorite I’ve ever heard. “Shower the People” brought a communal feel to the arena, and “How Sweet it Is” got people up and dancing before Taylor departed for his encore.
The encore displayed what really makes James Taylor special. He’s a great songwriter, yes. He’s an excellent singer, yes. But I don’t think it’s as well known what a great performer he is. He doesn’t give a big, in your face performance. It’s subtle. But the impact carries more weight than you’d expect. He opened is encore with “Shed a Little Light”. Every back up singer lined across the stage with James in the middle. The song brought positivity and an optimistic message for us to depart with.
James then invited Jackson Browne on stage to perform with him. As you’d expect, the crowd was ecstatic. Jackson shared that he gets chills every night when he hears James Taylor and the other singers perform “Shed a Little Light”. James Taylor told Browne that he was correct in saying that this crowd was great. Much to the audience’s delight he then asked us what we were doing tomorrow. He joked that we made the people of Houston seem like they were asleep. Followed by “That was a cheap joke.”
Taylor told us for the last song of the night they were going to play a song that Browne co-wrote with Glenn Frye, the Eagles first huge hit, “Take it Easy”. I almost hate to admit it, but this was the loudest and most into it the crowd got all night. But I do get it. “Take it Easy” is a great song, and the fact that it was totally unexpected I think added to the moment. It was great fun.
As Jackson and the band started walking off stage James Taylor looked to the side of the stage, pointed to his wrist where a watch would be, then put up his finger to someone as if to ask if they had time for one more song. The audience saw this and went nuts begging for one more song. When he waved his band back to position and the crowd roared. People who were headed for the door raced back to their seats.
James Taylor thanked us for or allowing them to finally do this concert and said he’d like to leave us with a song by Carol King. If you’re a James Taylor or Carol King Fan you knew this song would be “You’ve Got a Friend”. I was so happy to be hearing it. To see Jackson Browne singing with the backup singers and the entire audience singing along was surreal. Jackson said earlier that he had to pinch himself, but I found myself needing a pinch. I couldn’t believe I was so fortunate to see this show.
Just as we were saying our goodbye’s James looked over to the side of the stage, pointing to his wrist and again putting up one finger asking if there was still time for one more song. The unseen person again gave the green light and this time, James Taylor stayed on stage with only a guitar and his son Henry. They performed an old gem, “Close Your Eyes.” It was a pretty great way to end the night. The father and son harmonies sounded excellent together.
Now, this is what I mean about being a sneaky good showman. “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Close Your Eyes” were on the setlist. But were they there “just in case we have time”? Or was the whole pointing to the wrist and asking for one more song all an act? One of the ushers shared with me that he saw James and Henry working on this during the soundcheck and was hoping they’d do it in the real show. So it doesn’t sound like it was a for sure thing. But that’s just it.
The fact that I don’t really know either way is a tribute to how well that moment went over with the audience. They were eating it up! And so was I. So it doesn’t matter. It was a great way to entice the audience and end the show in a special way. I’m so glad I now have a check next to James Taylor on my concert bucket list.