“I’ve got my RMs on,” muses James Taylor, staring at his boots. And from that very first moment he endears himself to the audience in the Adelaide Entertainment Centre. They, or I should say we, are very predominately of a certain age. We are here to listen again to the soundtrack of the 1970s. We bought the LPs back in 1971, listening avidly to this new species called country rock. Like James then, the blokes had shoulder-length hair; like James now, they haven’t got much left at all. As Paul Simon once said: Isn’t it strange to be seventy?

This is the season of the heritage acts. Graham Nash has been through town. And Gladys Knight. Tom Jones, with his defiantly black hair and the voicebox of a 25-year-old, reminded us it is not unusual to be touring – at 83. To many younger music fans this Boomer adoration of its former and formative glory is, at the very least, embarrassing. But the idea of a lifelong career in popular music is only as old as the mid ’60s. Earlier than that, you listened to Elvis and Buddy Holly and then you switched to Pat Boone and Mantovani. Nobody over 22 listened to pop music any more. It was for teenagers.

Now we are in an era of the octogenarian superstar. The Stones, Roger Waters, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and until not so long ago, Leonard Cohen. Musicians writing songs about getting old, about the changes in their lives. Their albums were like the late works of Yeats and the other lifelong poets. Careers had never lasted this long. Old people had never played electric instruments like this. And yes, perhaps it will happen with Johnny Marr, Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters and, who knows? Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift?

James Taylor is 76 and he and his band are embarking on a lengthy world tour including seven shows in Australia. He has been recording continuously since his debut with The Beatles’ Apple label in 1968 right up to  2020’s American Standard. His finger-picking acoustic guitar style, his warm, flawless baritone and his melodic, lyrically subtle songs have always been distinctive. Few have so successfully forged a new genre from folk, country and rock music, and Taylor has sales of 100 million albums to prove it.

Each song has an introduction, sometimes confiding or self-deprecating, often funny, always engaging

On stage at the Entertainment Centre, Taylor opens with trademark filigree, acoustic plucking, and then begins to croon “Something in the Way She Moves”. The hits are only just beginning. He reminisces how he auditioned that song to Paul McCartney and George Harrison at Apple – and George liked it so much he went home and wrote it again himself.

Taylor has a courtly presence. Relaxed, droll and welcoming. Each song has an introduction, sometimes confiding or self-deprecating, often funny, always engaging. He is generous to the band, as well he might be; he has gathered consummate musicians for this tour. He recalls his friendship with John Belushi and how the shock of his death led the way to his own recovery from narcotics – celebrated in “That’s Why I’m Here”. “Yellow and Rose” (from the Hourglass album) is set in Botany Bay, the song inspired by Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore.

“Never Die Young” – one of best songs, with a sublime melody and an almost magic realist lyric – is one of many highlights. The band are in total accord. Led by bassist Jimmy Johnson on bass, in lockstep with master drummer  Steve Gadd, Kevin Hays on keyboards and the legendary session guitarist Dean Parks, they are sensational to watch. Singers Katie Markowitz , Andrea Zonn and Dorian Holley wrap around Taylor’s now-diminished vocal strength. The repeated refrain “Hold them up, hold them up to me” seemed to also refer to the way these musicians honour and protect both the singer and his song.

“Sweet Baby James”, Taylor’s most famous song from his most famous album, also has added poignancy now. His enchanting guitar intro is there but the effortless vocal of the original is no more. Parks’s magical pedal steel, Hays’s piano and the soothing rhythm section encase the performance nonetheless. Sweet Baby James is now Sweet Elderly James. This is almost an elegy to his perfect lullaby and, for his fans from day one, that resonates even more.

Beginning with low droning violin from Andrea Zonn, “Country Road” gets a good stretch, spiced by Parks’s gritty guitar and the sheer class of the bass and drums. Taylor’s blues tracks – Jimmy Jones’s “Handy Man” and the bump and grind of “Steamroller” – give him a chance to take up his Fender and trade riffs with Parks and run those scat hummings and low moans that spare his upper register a while.

Divided into two sets, Taylor’s show covers some 24 songs spanning his long career. The collaborations with, and covers of, Carole King’s classics “Up on the Roof” and “You’ve Got a Friend” never sounded better than from these musicians. For “Long Ago and Far Away”, MD Jimmy Johnson had extracted Joni Mitchell’s vocal harmony from the original recording and it was patched in to the live performance, Mitchell’s bell-like vibrato adding an ethereal dimension, like it’s a musical seance.

“Fire and Rain”, his pensive elegy to untimely death, was a much-anticipated moment, but like “Sweet Baby James”, the piercing sad sweetness is missing from the vocal and the song of innocence has become one of rueful experience.

The set closes with a joyously upbeat full-band version of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is”, which is matched in the encores with a luminous version of “Shed a Little Light”, featuring a thrilling gospel solo by former Aretha Franklin back-up singer Dorian Holley.

Fittingly, it is just Taylor and his guitar for the final, final one. His “Song for You Far Away” is both lullaby and benediction. The audience is enthralled. After all these years, James Taylor never felt closer.

James Taylor and his All-Star Band performed at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre on April 19 as part of their national tour.

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