Review: James Taylor, revitalized at 70, brings comforting joy to Amalie Arena in Tampa

James Taylor performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on May 12, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)
James Taylor performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on May 12, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)
Published May 13 2018
Updated May 14 2018

It was a Junior Walker song, (I'm a) Road Runner, that did it, that untethered James Taylor from his six-string and barstool.

He grabbed a harmonica, kicked up a heel or two, shook and wiggled and hopped on one foot, and probably would have danced even more had the cord to his mic not tugged him back to position.

Taylor turned 70 in March, but the way he played at times Saturday at Tampa's Amalie Arena, he might as well not have aged a day in 20 years.

Twenty-four hours after and before home Lightning playoff games at Amalie, more than 9,000 fans bore witness to a J.T. revitalized, or at least not quite willing to cede his entire sandalwood soul to Father Time. Heck, during most of his 20-minute intermission, Taylor meandered down to the crowd to sign autographs and snap photos with fans. Who does that?

It makes you wonder: Would we have gotten a show like this out of Taylor if Bonnie Raitt hadn't canceled?

Raitt was scheduled to open this run of shows on Taylor's tour, but canceled recently due to a medical issue that required immediate surgery. Taylor assured fans that the 68-year-old Raitt was recovering nicely, and even had them record a get-well-soon message to encourage her to get back on the road.

"She made it through a tight squeeze there, some dire straits, and the news is very good," he said. "It seems like everything is on the up and up. The news is good. The news is great."

Raitt's presence was missed; her rasp and attitude would've provided a nice counter-balance to Taylor's steel-cut oatmeal folk. On the other hand, with two full sets to play with, Taylor and his 11-piece band could afford to have fun with the setlist, mixing covers and extra songs amongst just about every hit fans could want.

The band, a mix of Taylor veterans and renowned sidemen – like horn player Lou Marini of the Blues Brothers, such a character he had T-shirts on sale at the merch table – was always present, always persistent on every song. Sea-breezy bongos, chimes and keyboards pushed Country Road and Jump Up Behind Me just to the precipice of yacht rock; the samba-fied First Day of May coaxed another jig out of J.T., who fell into a mini-conga line with his backing vocalists.

Horn-men Marini and Walt Fowler pumped heart and soul into many songs, and stole the show in sombreros on Mexico. Even on Taylor's gentler songs, the band was front and center: Steve Gadd's evocative snare roles in Fire and Rain, for example; or a lovely interplay between Andrea Zonn's violin and Kevin Hayes' piano on Copperline.

Taylor's voice, always as warm as an amaretto bubble bath, is aging; there's no denying it. He doesn't miss notes, but he reaches for them; on songs where the band was higher in the mix than the vocals, it probably wasn't unintentional.

Still, when you need one voice to stitch up a hole in your soul, Taylor's an all-time closer. A gorgeously staged Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight practically begged the audience to start slow-dancing. You could feel Taylor and the band's jazzy synergy on Carole King's Up On the Roof. He dedicated the comforting Never Die Young to the victims and families of February's high school mass shooting in Parkland, some of whom he met at a gig Friday  night in Sunrise.

And if you just came to grin through the hits, Taylor had you covered there, too. He played the goofy fool on Steamroller Blues, mugging through a series of Mayeresque guitar faces, but when he laid that hot turquoise Telecaster down at his feet at the end, his antics had the whole joint rolling. And what a run of crowd-pleasers that followed: Sweet Baby James, Fire and Rain, Your Smiling Face, Shower the People and How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), each pulling people to their feet and into their partners' arms.

The feels rolled into the encore, which began with a gospelly Shed a Little Light and ended with an earnest You've Got a Friend, with a cover of Wilson Pickett's In the Midnight Hour in the middle. "Beach music, for sure," Taylor called that one: Loose, carefree and sounding only a little bit rehearsed.

And there again in the middle was an animated J.T., skipping and hopping and staggering around on one stick, pumping his septuagenarian fist to keep the good times rolling. Proof positive that even the oldest souls among us still, at times, have to get up and dance.

— Jay Cridlin