November 10, 2014 | « back

COURIER-JOURNAL.COM — James Taylor delivers living-room vibe at Yum!

By Jeffrey Lee Puckett.

James Taylor’s greatest gift as a songwriter is the way his songs draw you in and gently demand attention; they have an authority that doesn’t shout but is nonetheless commanding. His performances have a similar quality, with a vibe that’s more living room than arena.

Friday night at the KFC Yum! Center, Taylor came off like an old friend stopping by to chat with 12,000 close buddies. He told some familiar stories — the one about the lullaby-singing cowboy, for example — and showed off his usual self-deprecating humor.

“We’ve got some new songs,” he said. “They sound just like the old songs, but they’re technically new.”

But it was the old songs that everyone had come to hear, and Taylor didn’t disappoint. He delivered a steady stream of Top 40 hits and fan favorites such as “Carolina in My Mind,” “Lo and Behold,” “Country Road,” “Millworker” and “Sweet Baby James,” the 1970 ballad about the singing cowboy that helped launched Taylor’s career.

At 66, Taylor’s voice has lost little of its appeal and retains an inviting, effortless quality. But it has changed in at least one important respect: Taylor now seems a far happier man than he was throughout the first two decades of his career, and the inescapable sadness in his voice that helped defined much of his work is nearly gone, replaced by a carefree bounce.

That did effect some songs Friday night, but not greatly. The melancholy at the heart of “Country Road” and “Millworker” was diluted, and the subtle desperation in “Lo and Behold” was recast as slick gospel that finally turned cheesy. But when it really counted, Taylor got in touch with that sadness; “Fire and Rain,” perhaps his most perfectly realized song, was filled with much the same longing and desolation that it had in 1970.

Taylor’s All-Star Band was stocked with some of the industry’s top-tier session players, even though none are household names. Drummer Steve Gadd, whose resume is nearly endless, was joined in part by “Blue” Lou Marini, Jimmy Johnson, Mike Landau and vocalist Arnold McCuller, a Taylor mainstay whose work on “Shower the People” has become a consistent highlight.

Taylor’s show was much like last week’s Paul McCartney concert in that the songs were ultimately the stars. They’ve become part of the pop-culture landscape, enduring for a couple of very good reasons: They’re emotionally resonant and seamlessly constructed, built to last a lifetime.