With a new wife, new twin sons and even a new band, veteran pop troubadour James Taylor is spending most of the next few months touring the amphitheaters of North America, a summer ritual as dependable as sunscreen and inflated concession stand prices.
“I’m kind of grooved in on that kind of evening and a sort of summer-night experience,” says Taylor, 53, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who in February this year married Boston Symphony Orchestra publicist Caroline Smedvig. The couple’s sons were born in early April, via in vitro fertilization of a surrogate mother.
The veteran singer-songwriter – a Boston native who began his recording career in the late 1960s with the Beatles’ Apple Records label – even paid tribute to his summer rituals in the 1985 hit “That’s Why I’m Here,” singing: “Summer like summer, coming back every year/Got your baby, got your blanket, got your bucket of beer/I break into a grin from ear to ear/And suddenly it’s perfectly clear – That’s why I’m here.”
“I’m very aware of it as being a sort of context in which to perform,” Taylor says. “It’s almost got a festival sort of feel to it; it’s not like being in a concert hall, you know? There’s lots of life going on around you at a concert like that. It’s an event I like feeling part of.”
What Taylor likes less, however, is the growing corporatization of the venues where he performs. He’s watched many of them change their names from monikers that describe their often bucolic surroundings to those of the companies that pay substantial sums to put themselves on the marquees.
A FACT OF SUMMER
“It makes you feel sort of detached about the place,” Taylor says. “Pine Knob (outside Detroit), I suppose, is probably an arbitrary name, too, but somebody gave it that name because it meant something to them. I guess corporate branding is just a fact of life, and we see more and more of it.”
That has not deterred Taylor from making his familiar rounds, however. For this summer’s “Pull Over” tour, he’s slated more than 50 dates with the largest band he’s ever put on the road – an 11-piece outfit that includes two horn players and four backup singers.
With a repertoire that includes revered hits such as “Fire and Rain” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” more obscure numbers and some new, unreleased selections, Taylor says the size of the ensemble helps him put across the kind of eclectic evening he wants to present.
“It gives you a great sort of range, from solo with guitar to a cappella voices to horn-section support on some tunes,” he explains. “It gives you a lot of different options. You can put together different bands from within it.”
He’s also culling selections for his next studio album, which will be his first set of fresh material since the Grammy-winning “Hourglass” in 1997. Taylor estimates he has about two-thirds of the record finished, though he cautions that “if I write some new stuff or I want to re-cut or stuff like that, we could be less far along than I’m thinking.”
Taylor describes it as an instrumentally spare recording – just guitar, bass, drums and some keyboards – with a broad stylistic scope that embraces influences from Motown and Broadway to blues, bossa nova and what he calls “a very meditative, hypnotic song.”
“The audience and the size of the audience has encouraged me to sort of expand my sound over the years,” says Taylor, who during the past year sang a guest vocal on the title track from former Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler’s solo album “Sailing to Philadelphia” and also performs a rendition of his hit “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” on jazz trumpeter Michael Brecker’s new album, “Nearness of You.”
“I feel influences from all over the place, from country to blues to Motown and Philadelphia sounds, from light classical and Brazilian and Celtic and all kinds of stuff. To me, the things I write try to sound like all these different kinds of music,” he says. “But I am at the center of it; it all comes through the narrow filter of my guitar style and my vocal range. That unifies it and probably narrows it.”
That, of course, is just fine with an audiences who are familiar with the Taylor summer experience and seldom hesitate to demonstrate their affection for it.
“My wife is in the classical world; when she comes to see my shows, she’s sort of taken aback by how vocal the audience is, yelling things out and communicating stuff,” Taylor says. “I tell her that’s a good thing; that’s energy that I need. I really need to know they’re out there. When they’re wooden or too complacent, you feel detached. You need to get it back from them.”