James Taylor & The All Star Band with special guest Bonnie Raitt performing at The First Direct Arena Leeds on Thursday 12th July 2018.

Review by Kevin Cooper

Last night at the First Direct Arena in Leeds, it wasn’t just the sun that was putting a smile on people’s faces, but they also basked in the happiness that comes with having James Taylor turn the pages on one of music’s most beloved songbooks.

For a real treat, Bonnie Raitt was billed as the special guest, but with her pedigree it was more like a double bill. Now aged 68 and Taylor 70, the two have been friends since she was 20, she told the crowd, and the affection was there for all to see as Taylor broke with concert tradition to come out onto the stage to introduce her and send her off on her hour long set with a hug.

Raitt is undoubtedly a class act and having just returned to this tour after time off for health complications, she looked in excellent shape. She was in great form as she and her four piece band effortlessly moved between genres, from roots to blues to funk.

Opening with Unintended Consequence Of Love, she then delivered an outstanding performance of Inxs’ Need You Tonight. Across her set which included Everybody’s Crying Mercy, Spit Of Love and Nick Of Time, this eleven time Grammy winner showed that she was worth every accolade and then some.

She dedicated a sparsely gorgeous cover of John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery to all women suffering around the world, and she really sparkled with her hushed version of Skip James’ Devil Got My Woman. A particular highlight was a cover of Talking Heads Burning Down The House which had the crowd on their feet. And before she wrapped up, Taylor returned to the stage to jam along to John Hiatt’s Thing Called Love; the friends huddling together as she graciously accepted the applause.

Taylor opened his set with a collage of photographs, videos and interview clips on a huge back screen, that spanned the half century of a remarkable career before he broke into Carolina In My Mind from his 1968 self titled debut album. He then went on to deliver a set that included pretty much all of his 1976 Greatest Hits, a staple in the vinyl collection of most of this audience. Old friends like Sunny Skies, Your Smiling Face and Shower The People showed up with a glimmer of nostalgia, wearing their wrinkles with pride.

He introduced nearly every song with a story, accompanying them with personal photos. He also slipped in the odd joke especially when regaling the story of how one of his dad’s sayings inspired First Of May. For Handy Man there were videos of him repairing a fence and other workmen falling off ladders and experiencing unintended DIY disasters.

He rightly lavished the All Star Band with praise early in the night and announced that he was pleased that they had been able to join him on this tour, before turning over his acoustic guitar to reveal a note that read HELP ME in big letters. But this band was outstanding. They turned blues parody Steamroller Blues into a lethal jam including a mean trumpet solo from Walt Fowler and some great moments from guitarist Michael Landau. Cuban percussionist Luis Conte quickened the show’s pulse with some Latin jazz infused takes on Mexico, and Lou Marini slowed it all down again when he supplied sweet saxophone notes for Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.

The exquisite Fire And Rain which Taylor wrote about his childhood friend Suzanne Schnerr’s suicide was sung with a deep tenderness and the empowering lyrics in Shed A Little Light, a lesser know but fantastic gospel meditation, highlighted Taylor’s folk bloodline.

Something In The Way She Moves, Taylor explained was auditioned for The Beatles’ Apple Records in London, and which promptly earned him his debut album deal. And last night as the music and words echoed around the arena, the crowd sang the words right back at him, not missing a beat.

To finish the main set was a delightful cover of Marvin Gaye’s How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), before an encore saw Raitt join him for a rousing version of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode. Leaving the stage to Taylor for the must do song, Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend, a delighted audience cheered as he invited Raitt back to help him sing You Can Close Your Eyes, which they delivered as a sort of lullaby to close the evening.

This was truly a friend’s kind of show, between band mates and backup singers trading spots in both Raitt’s and Taylor’s set, and if one of them was more delighted than the other to be there on stage, it was impossible to tell which. It had been an evening amongst good friends, both on stage and off.