James Taylor Settles In With His Trademark Relaxed Style

The singer hasn't changed much, and that's just the way fans like it

The soulful satisfaction that James Taylor gets from giving a concert is every bit evident in his songs and his shows.

''I break into a grin from ear to ear,'' he sings upon seeing the fans who return each summer, ''and suddenly it's perfectly clear: That's why I'm here.''

Taylor seems to have found his life's purpose in performing: He has toured nearly every summer since the mid-1970s. And, as a heat wave settled oppressively over Boston last week, he played with sweat dripping from each wisp of his hair and even extended the show with two encores.

The fans return because, year after year, the ever-mellow Taylor provides a placid mixture of simple guitar and hearty vocals with an occasional blues edge. For most of the gig at Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts, the fans were just as laid-back as Taylor.

Forty-something couples, sporting Banana Republic's latest clothes, sat in the pricey section, singing along and swaying contentedly. Younger audience members unfurled blankets and settled on the lawn. Evian spring water was the drink of choice.

Little has changed in Taylor's style over the years. A purple-and-yellow swirling pattern that backlit one song in Boston was reminiscent of his debut decade - the 1970s. ''Fire and Rain,'' the Taylor signature piece about a friend's death, hit No. 3 on the charts in 1970. Since then, such classics as ''Carolina in My Mind'' and ''Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight'' have become staples.

But it was evident that Taylor has tired of crooning these old standbys. In one self-revelatory verse he sings, ''Fortune and fame's such a curious game/ perfect strangers ... pay good money to hear 'Fire and Rain' again and again and again.''

Well, ''again and again and again'' has clearly been too much. His arrangements of ''Fire and Rain'' and ''Carolina in My Mind'' lacked passion. His performance of the two songs was merely perfunctory.

After the stretch of nostalgic classics, Taylor took a stab at enlivening the crowd, and himself, with other composers' songs, such as Gershwin's ''Fascinating Rhythm'' and Rodgers & Hammerstein's ''Getting to Know You.'' But these clearly didn't excite an audience that came to hear Taylor sing Taylor.

Also generally sapping to the night's energy was the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops and Marvin Hamlisch, who toured with Taylor this summer. The combination lacked a basic chemistry. And although the strings added some depth to a few Taylor songs, such as ''The Millworker,'' it was Taylor's own band that provided most of the background richness for the evening.

Toward the end of the show it was one of Taylor's own - ''Steamroller'' - that re-engaged the crowd.

Augmented by electric-guitar flourishes and an exceptionally strong four-member backup group, Taylor's adroitness in matching fast-paced lyrics with quick rhythms brought the crowd alive. The singer even exerted himself further by hopping and dipping onstage, although one fan commented, ''He's even mellow when he's jumping up and down.''

Taylor's newer works were sprinkled heavily throughout the show. Though deeply rooted in his early style, they show more creativity in the lyrics than some of the older songs. For instance, Taylor penned the fantastical ''Frozen Man,'' he explained to the audience, upon reading a National Geographic story about the ice-age shepherd uncovered recently from a melting iceberg.

Unlike the old, deeply personal songs, some of his new tunes have an overtly political tone: ''Take all the money that we need for school/ Spend it on a weapon you can never use,'' he sings in ''Slap Leather.'' But ultimately Taylor returns to the simple style that endears him to fans.

This time it was the newest song of the night - one he tentatively titled ''Alice'' - about a woman who leaves Santa Fe, N.M., and keeps on going. ''She said, 'It's enough to be on your way, it's enough to cover ground, it's enough to be moving on,' '' he sang.

This is vintage Taylor: a song about the soul-searching journey that includes hints and lessons about finding one's self along the way. And the fans seem to always want to come along.

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