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Taylor, at Tanglewood, kindles fire and rain

LENOX -- James Taylor has been singing at Tanglewood for more than 30 years, and no popular artist has a stronger hold on the audience in the Berkshires.

More than 18,000 people showed up for his Fourth of July concert, and another 14,000 were here for the repeat performance yesterday, even though the evening began with thunderstorms. (''it's a dry rain," Taylor quipped). He made a special point of saluting the way the lawn crowd was staying in touch with nature.

That's something he's always been able to do himself. Many great performers emphasize that they are performing, doing something dramatic and unusual. The rarer kind, like Taylor, never seem to be putting on a show at all.

He comes onstage, dressed as he probably is at home, in sandblasted black jeans and a faded work shirt that might once have been blue; he shakes hands with people lined up along the front of the stage, and even signs a few autographs. Once he tunes his guitar and starts to sing, he can deliver a few familiar moves -- hiking his right leg as he hops on his left or leaping into the air, as if propelled by an invisible pogo stick. But basically it's all about his singing, which comes as naturally as breathing.

He's a generous artist; he sat out for only one number, and he arranged for each member of his vocal and instrumental ensemble of 10 to have a solo moment -- all of them are first-rate musicians.

Taylor himself offered 24 songs, including three encores, and he showed few signs of fatigue even at the close of 2 1/2 hours of singing. His voice moved up a little, that's all, and by the end of ''Steamroller," he flipped it all the way to high C.

Of course he can't give a concert without singing ''Carolina" and ''Country Road," not to mention ''Fire And Rain" and ''Sweet Baby James," which he introduced as a ''cowboy lullabye." The line about the turnpike and the Stockbridge Bowl got a big hand at Tanglewood, but a couple of chord changes were all it took for the audience to identify most of the songs before Taylor even started to sing.

Many in the Tanglewood audience looked old enough to have followed the singer since 1970; for anyone under the age of 35, and there were lots of them, Taylor's voice is as familiar an American phenomenon as the Grand Canyon, the redwood groves, or the Petrified Forest.

Taylor did offer a couple of neglected pieces from his songbook, ''Nothing Like a Hundred Miles [To Make Me Forget About You]" and ''Everybody Has the Blues," both introduced by Ray Charles. And he can make pleasantly self-deprecating comments about his songs, which he says he ''wrote, or channeled, or stole." He admits that it sometimes takes him a long time to understand them, and there are some like ''Never Die Young" that he hasn't figured out yet. ''Frozen Man," he realized only recently, is about his father.

Taylor's sturdy voice spans more than two octaves, but he sometimes deliberately narrows his range -- one of the songs (''Handyman") uses only three pitches. He has a long breath, which makes it easy for him to phrase legato songs like ''The Water Is Wide," but his singing is never merely a vocal phenomenon. It's a way of telling stories and sharing feelings. He doesn't deliver melodies and lyrics looking at himself in the rear-view mirror; he brings them closer than they appear, into the cherishable here and now.

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