As the years roll on, James Taylor has evolved into the Mr. Rogers of rock 'n' roll.
Kind, gentle, patient, compassionate, reassuring.
He sings about friendship, loneliness, sweetness, smiles and dreams.
Taylor's music and persona are as comfortable and comforting as Mr. Rogers' cardigan and sneakers. And as familiar.
In his return Monday night to Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, the ever-relaxed Taylor wore an untucked polo shirt and a newsboy cap. Under a giant tree, he welcomed 10,000 baby boomers to his neighborhood, be it country roads in Carolina or snowy highways in Massachusetts.
It was an immaculately pleasant performance, punctuated with dad jokes and elegantly arranged soft-rock.
At 73, Taylor has become an endearing host, telling the Minnesota fans that he feels he knows the Twin Cities well because he's read and reread all of author John Sandford's novels, which take place in the Cities. "It's actually not very accurate," he joked of the books' portrayal of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Between light-hearted backstories about his songs, Taylor focused on the tunes that made him the quintessential 1970s singer-songwriter. The back-to-back renditions of the lullabye "Sweet Baby James" and the tormented "Fire and Rain" were highlights, beautiful in their understated simplicity. Also standing out was a jazzy treatment of "Country Road," framed by Andrea Zonn's fiddle.
Taylor showed his love of interpreting other people's material, including the crowd-stirring Marvin Gaye hit "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" and the gently jazzy "As Easy as Rolling Off a Log," a 1920s ditty from Taylor's 2020 album, "American Standard."
Actually, there were only a handful tunes in the 110-minute set that Taylor recorded after the 1970s, including the raison d'etre "That's Why I'm Here" (1985), the childhood reflection "Copperline" ('91), the mild social commentary "Line Em Up" ('97) and a choral treatment of the prayerful encore "Shed a Little Light" ('97).
The master of soft rock stepped out of Mr. Taylor's neighborhood and kicked out the jams on "Steamroller," his mock blues number during which he did a duck walk with his electric guitar and vocally mimicked old blues singers.
Like Mr. Rogers, Taylor welcomed a visitor to his neighborhood, Jackson Browne. As part of Taylor's encore, they harmonized on "Take It Easy," a song Browne wrote "back in the last century" (according to Taylor) for the Eagles. It was almost as fun as when the Eagles did the tune at Xcel Center in October.
Browne then stuck around to sing backup on the inevitable "You've Got a Friend." This was the third consecutive time at the X that Taylor invited another Rock & Roll Hall of Famer to open. On Monday, the mostly downbeat Browne wasn't quite as exciting as Bonnie Raitt in 2018 or Carole King in 2010.
No longer wearing his hair like a sheep dog, the gray-bearded southern California singer-songwriter, 73, dipped into three political songs from this year's album "Downhill from Everywhere." The best of which was "The Dreamer," about a Mexican immigrant but Browne said he always thinks of his Norwegian grandmother when he sings it. She migrated to Minnesota.
"I'm glad she did," he said, mentioning his mother was born in St. Paul, "because I get to sing in English instead of Norwegian."
Browne sparkled on his more famous tunes, including the poignant "Fountain of Sorrow," "Late for the Sky," the rocking "Running on Empty" and "The Pretender," for which Taylor joined him. That's what friends are for.