Like a neon-and-chrome jukebox in a 1970s fern bar, Jackson Browne then James Taylor expertly spun radio-friendly soft rock at Saratoga Performing Arts Center Tuesday to the troubadours’ happy contemporaries.
The joyful welcome for those songs felt like nostalgia for simpler times — aren’t ALL times simpler? — and showed that good songs stay good.
So does the feeling on both sides of the stage when big throngs flock to see big stars, especially in these not-so-simple times. Before the biggest crowd I’ve seen and joined since before the plague, both Browne and Taylor relished the roar.
Browne gratefully said anticipating the tour with Taylor “helped me get through the last year and a half.” After the vintage kick-down-the-door opener “You Love the Thunder,” Browne introduced “The Long Way Round,” a hopeful new hymn for these times, but spiced with outrage. Browne mixed old and new tunes (from his fresh “Downhill from Everywhere”) more bravely than Taylor, who resolutely looked back. Taylor’s recent albums celebrate the Great American Songbook and he grabbed his least familiar song Tuesday from a vintage Warner Brothers Loony Tune cartoon.
Both Browne and Taylor write well for their distinctive but not very big or rangy voices. Taylor’s rings dry as a New England winter when snow has swept all the moisture from the sky; Browne’s morose croon undresses naked emotion. Like their fans, the stars’ voices were all still there.
Browne sounded affectingly pained Tuesday in the laments “Fountain of Sorrow” and “Late for the Sky,” righteous in “Downhill from Everywhere” and “When Justice is Real.” Smart pacing shaped the mood, and he clearly loved when his band crackled with tight, focused energy in up- or mid-tempo tunes. “Doctor My Eyes” earned crowd claps on the beat, more or less. Guitarist and lap-slide player Greg Leisz got the solos, sometimes echoing David Lindley who recorded the songs originally with Browne, other times re-inventing things. Guitarist Val McCallum’s subdued rhythm fills stacked riffs alongside Jeff Young’s keyboards. Longtime bassist Bob Glaub and supple drummer Mauricio Lewak punched the rockers with gleeful power and shaded the quieter tunes in laid-back fashion. Singers Alethea Mills and Chavonne Stewart framed Brown’s leads without overshadowing him.
Taylor joined Browne and his band for the mid-tempo rockers “The Pretender” and “Running on Empty” — a warm, mutual admiration feel.
Taylor toted an even bigger band than Browne’s but began his set with video cameos of fans singing his songs before Andrea Zonn’s fiddle (she also sang, later) introduced “Country Roads” with Celtic passages as four singers and seven players eased into the quiet, pastoral groove. “I missed you something fierce,” Taylor said. “I missed you desperately!” Like Browne a longtime SPAC fave, he happily harvested the crowd’s affection.
Offering “Never Die Young” as “good advice,” Taylor sat for the first time but mostly stood, (as Browne did) finger-picking acoustic guitars mostly, though an electric whose paint job he praised activated a later tune. He dedicated “That’s Why I’m Here” to those in recovery and the memory of John Belushi, whose overdose death, Taylor said, “scared me sober” — but also promised plenty of songs for those under the influence.
Early on, Taylor said “Copperline” about his North Carolina childhood home was a “landscape painting of a song;” later “Carolina In My Mind” got similar colors, as did “Fire and Rain,” set in Massachusetts.
Like Browne, Taylor knows how to build a set. “Oh, Mexico” was first to hit his patented easy-rocking lope. Percussionist Michito Sanchez, trumpeter Walt Fowler and saxophonist “Blue Lou” Marini soloed hot and pumped the coda. Doffing his jacket before this, Taylor thanked the crowd “for making an old man feel good;” but he was spry, and wry, all night.
Newish tunes “You Make it Easy” and “Line ‘em Up” sprang from witty spoken intros, but the electric “Steamroller Blues” didn’t need a lead in. Here Taylor grabbed his (nicely painted) Telecaster and pushed this boisterous rocker over the top. It popped and pulsed, Taylor singing in mock snarls, fanning guitarist Mike Laundau’s bristling solo with his flat-cap, grinning as Fowler went all Miles with a muted-trumpet solo.
Next, “As Easy as Falling Off a Log” relaxed into antique swing before “Sweet Baby James,” “Fire and Rain,” “Carolina on My Mind” and “Shower the People” shifted the balance from playing to singing as Zonn, Arnold McCuller, Kate Markowitz, Dorian Holley and Henry Taylor — yes, son of — united their voices to breathtaking effect. In the sweet “Shower,” video of fans singing along recalled the opening.
Encores honored unity and kinship, Browne returning the favor of Taylor guesting in his set by returning to the stage for “Take It Easy,” the Eagles hit Browne wrote before he started recording his own songs. “You’ve Got a Friend” celebrated Taylor’s sometime singing partner Carole King, who wrote it, while “Close Your Eyes” featured son Henry.
Drummer Steve Gadd was the first player Taylor had introduced, a jazz giant happily muscling up soft-rock tunes; while subtle, supple bassist and bandleader Jimmy Johnson was last but far from least. Selling lots of records for a long time earns hefty budgets to bring top talent on the road. Both Taylor and Browne do; richly benefitting both audience and songs Tuesday.
FYI, few in the big, happy crowd wore masks, but everyone in the crews did.