- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 24, 2005

A clear and balmy night devoid of last week’s suffocating humidity combined with a concert featuring one of pop music’s most enduring stars — performing not only his hits but those of a music icon — yielded an evening to remember at the Nissan Pavilion.

“Nice night,” James Taylor told a packed house at the Bristow, Va. venue Saturday night.

There were, of course, the older fans who’ve remained loyal to the lanky singer/songwriter for more than three decades. But the audience’s younger members seemed equally enthralled with a musical lineup that bore no resemblance to the current crop of highly rotated top 40 hits.

Sweet Baby James, whose smooth caramel voice is as savory as it was 30 years ago, stuck to the tried and true laid-back formula that’s marked his success. He tore through his songbook, while also offering two of his more obscure compositions covered by the late great Ray Charles, and he also performed a tune by the Dixie Chicks — his pals from last year’s Vote for Change tour.

Mr. Taylor, 57, began the night parked on a stool as if he were sitting by a campfire. At times, one had to stare hard at the massive monitors to make sure his fingers were actually moving over his guitar, so sly is his method.

The only emotion he displayed early on were his bushy eyebrows dancing across his brow.

His lack of panache is his panache.

Forgotten this night were “Shower the People” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” but he was smart enough not to abandon all the crowd pleasers. He delivered “Fire and Rain,” “Your Smiling Face” and “Your Handyman” with enough enthusiasm to show his appreciation for still being able to pack amphitheaters.

Clad in a cobalt blue shirt, the North Carolina native supplied just the right amount of droll banter between songs. He also gave prolific props to his band, some of whom had their baby pictures flashed on the monitors during their solo spots.

It was shameless, as were other images of puppies at play, but it all helped give the voluminous pavilion a homey feel.

As soothing as the first half proved, surprises were hard to come by. The downside of years spent perfecting one’s craft is buffing all the edges from your work. When Mr. Taylor peeked at a chalkboard listing of the night’s set and teased the crowd — saying they’d hear their favorites “if things go as planned” — it seemed the emptiest of threats.

He did, however, stretch beyond his soft rock image to include a dollop of country and blues, although the latter meant a vanilla version of “Summertime Blues” that stripped him clean of any angst.

The second half proved liberating for both singer and fan alike. The Ray Charles covers, along with the jaunty “Mexico,” allowed Mr. Taylor to let his hair down, figuratively speaking. That transformation took time, but by the final encores he had abandoned his patrician stance and looked like any other rocker reveling in the moment.

Part of Mr. Taylor’s allure is the effortless way his low tenor spills forth. His music isn’t just easy listening — his physical presence offers the same assured calm.

Just before taking his planned mid-show break, he joked that he didn’t know why he needed one but it was already planned.

That wasn’t true when the double encore drew near.

By the time he sang “How Sweet it is (To Be Loved By You)” to the rapt audience, he looked like the hardest-working man in show business this side of James Brown.

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