It took James Taylor about 30 minutes Sunday night to realize he was a bit overdressed for Tucson's hottest June 19th on record.
He was in the midst of introducing drummer Steve Gadd and was going to shake his hand when he shucked his suit coat. He then unbuttoned the top button of his long-sleeved dress shirt and rolled up the sleeves.
Several members of the audience loosely filling Tucson Arena shouted "Hydrate" as Taylor took a swallow from a water bottle on his mic stand.
"Yeah, it's a dry heat," Taylor quipped, adjusting his signature newsboy hat. "And so is my toaster. Was it 120 today? That's toasty."
But it was anything but toasty in the arena, thanks to the blast of cold coming from the air conditioner and the breeze of cool coming from Taylor and his 10-piece band.
Anyone who expected a quiet stroll down memory lane — one that called for planting yourself in your assigned seat and politely applauding after songs that went back 30, 40 years — were happily misled.
Taylor, 68, showed us that he is every bit the entertainer he was in his prime, only these days he does it with a sense of abandon. See, Taylor has nothing to prove; he's earned his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the sales and radio play charts, and atop the various most-played song lists with a catalog of near iconic hits from "You've Got a Friend" to "Fire and Rain." He doesn't need to dress them up with fancy stage lights and props, although he had some pretty nifty video complements Sunday night that flashed city scenes and some cool lighting effects.
His show Sunday night was all about breaking down walls that separate audience and artist. We felt like we were all gathered in a big campfire circle telling stories and singing songs. When a woman in the crowd yelled out "I love you James Taylor!" the singer jokingly responded, "You brazen hussy," a comment that generated a rush of laughs and applause.
Taylor told stories about the inspiration behind several songs including being homesick in England when he wrote "Carolina In My Mind," an ode to his boyhood home. When he sang it, he was joined by a quiet chorus that coursed through the arena — voices that grew more pronounced during "You've Got A Friend."
With few exceptions, Taylor sounded as remarkably nuanced and strong voiced as he did at the beginning of his career in the mid-1960s on songs including the inspiring come-together plea of "Secret of Life" and the lovers lament of "I Was A Fool to Care."
He got vocal assists on "Shower the People" from his 15-year-old son Henry and longtime backup singer Arnold McCuller, who sang the bluesy wail at the end with the passionate conviction of Sunday morning preacher.
There were so many songs from so many milestones in the lives of the audience, many of whom were well north of their 50s. He mixed and mingled old — the lullaby "Sweet Baby James," the toe-tapping "Mexico," a rocking cover of Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood" and the nostalgic reminiscence of "Copperline" — with new from his latest album "Before This World." Taylor promised — as he does every night when he pulls out the new material — to make it fast, like pulling off a bandage. Besides, he assured them, his new songs sound a lot like his old songs, written from that place where he seems to always retreat when he writes.
The crowd cheered him on through the rocking "Today Today Today," the ballad "You And I Again" and the folksy "Montana." One man in the back even shouted out a request from that album — the baseball-inspired "Angels of Fenway," which Taylor penned in honor of his favorite team the Boston Red Sox. The song recalls the "Curse of the Bambino," the long World Series drought that fans believe was directly linked to Boston selling Babe Ruth to New York Yankees.
Of course, Taylor added in his ever optimistic way, droughts eventually end; the Red Sox won the Series in 2004.
Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4642. On Twitter @Starburch