James Taylor brings folk to Frost — to mixed results

June 2, 2023, 12:36 a.m.

Tuesday night’s James Taylor concert brought together audiences from all walks of life. For some reason, I was in awe at the sheer volume of fedoras, flat caps, baseball hats and glasses retainers — fashion faux-pas for self-conscious Gen Z-ers but a welcome sight for me. Unlike last week’s Frostfest, this Frost Amphitheater concert drew a multi-generational crowd that went beyond rowdy Stanford students. As a 21st century college student, I almost felt a bit out of place.

Looking at the concert objectively, the most impressive part of Taylor’s performance was his skillful guitar playing. His signature style consists of deeply involved fingerpicking and unique chord structures. Despite occasionally struggling for a solo in tracks like “Everybody Has the Blues,” his fingerpicked playing was strong and dynamic. 

His chord progressions were quite satisfying at times. On the dead pig ballad “Mona,” where he bizarrely describes a “12 gauge surprise” for his pet pig, there’s a classic descending figure along the lines of D – A/C# – Bm – D/A – G – D/F# – E7. I love this songwriting trick of ending with the 7th chord, though the song’s irreverence created a bit of confusion. I was supposed to be laughing, right?

Taylor had a great sense of humor that he loved to show off between each track. When introducing “October Road,” Taylor began explaining the songs reflections on spirituality before cutting himself off with a cuss. He then laughed, telling the audience “you know” before diving directly into the tune.

Drummer Steve Gadd, one of the most legendary session musicians of the 20th century, had many moments to shine in the concert. His propulsive playing added energy to what would otherwise be fairly soft music. The songs where he was allowed to truly unleash were probably my favorite parts of the concert, as his technique is wildly dynamic and far more jazzy than you might expect.

Those objective notes about the quality of instrumentation are about as glowing as I can personally be about his work. In general, I had a hard time connecting with Taylor’s music. For example, I found the 12-bar blues of “Steamroller” to be a little embarrassing — largely thanks to Taylor’s incoherent, nearly parodic vocal performance. 

There weren’t many moments for emotional connection either. To be fair, soft rock and adult contemporary have never been my favorite genres, but regardless, in the era of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, or even Fleetwood Mac, Taylor’s acoustic singer-songwriter sound left much to be desired. 

Taylor’s inoffensive style was likely a product of the rapidly changing state of 1970s America. Taylor rose to fame at an era after Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix injected music with psychedelic fury (and subsequently joined the 27 Club), the funeral for the Summer of Love had commenced and the Vietnam War raged on. Maybe it was natural for a light-hearted act like Captain & Tennille or Taylor to pop up. Regardless, I don’t think that makes for the most compelling or interesting music.

When I consider the seminal releases that emerged at the same time as Taylor’s work, such as Neil Young’s “Harvest” (which features Taylor on two of its finest tracks), I am stunned by the somewhat insipid lyricism of Taylor in comparison to his peers. Take, for instance, the beginning verses of Tuesday night’s second set opener, “Jump Up Behind Me,”where Taylor rhymes the word “home” with itself four times in eight lines. 

“This land is a lovely green /It reminds me of my own home / Such children I’ve seldom seen /Even in my own home / The sky is so bright and clean / Just like my home / Kind people as have ever been / Won’t you take me back to my own home?”

And this is a late career composition! The more I began to consider the emotional centerpieces of his music, the more I started to feel like a fish out of water. Even though my dad called me before the concert to express his immense jealousy, I felt close to no emotions while actually listening to Taylor’s music. 

This is not to say that Taylor or his band are bad performers or that his songwriting is not impressive. It’s more so a testament to how music taste has evolved between generations. I loved seeing the (mostly older) audience’s enthusiasm for Taylor, waving their hands and cheering during every open pocket of silence — it was radiant and somewhat infectious. It must be a “you had to be there” moment.

Close to the end of his set, Taylor performed his most famous song, “Fire and Rain,” which stands out in his discography as a genuinely affecting song. There was an awe-induced silence in the audience from the strum of the recognizable first chord. For three and a half minutes, I completely understood Taylor. The lyrics were hard-hitting, the guitar was wonderful, and you could feel a palpable sense of emotion in the crowded amphitheater. Maybe those three and a half minutes were enough.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques. This article has been updated with a new title to more accurately reflect the content of the review. The Daily regrets this error.

Brandon Rupp '25 is a columnist for the Arts & Life section who served as the Vol. 263 Music Desk Editor. Contact him at rupp 'at' stanford.edu to tell him how much you respect his rigid journalistic integrity (or to send him music to take a look at). He appreciates that you are reading his bio.

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