Few performers are as soothingly engaging as James Taylor, and he has again carefully prepared and presented his body of work in an enticing, if not electrifying, fashion. He keeps it simple, easing his way between old and new that all seems to meet at the same timbre and meter. Taylor’s elocution and vocal tone are startlingly pure — he’s the rare singer whose voice has seemingly not changed over the last 30 years — and with a terrif album, “October Road,” to support, every song is a delight coming from that great voice.
Divided into two sets — the first hour is gentle, part two gets a variety of textures — Taylor delivered the usual greatest hits of “Shower the People” and “You’ve Got a Friend” early on; “Fire and Rain” and “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)” closing the main set. As he often jokes, the new stuff sounds just like the old stuff, yet newer songs “October Road,” “My Traveling Star” and “Mean Old Man” tower over other tunes in the show — the decade-old “Copperline” and the crowd-pandering reconstructed blues of “Steamroller.”
Still a fabulous comic force with a social-conscious side, Taylor is nearing the end of his 14th month of promoting “October Road.” The album, his highest-charting one in 26 years, was released in August 2002, surrounded by an extraordinary promotional push of in-store appearances, interviews and a handful of recorded perfs. He didn’t tour, yet in February announced his summer tour dates, the last of which is a Phoenix show on Oct. 18. In April, just a month before his tour began, Warners issued a career-encompassing “Best of.”
He offered the one new tune from that superb hits package, “Bittersweet,” but like many of Taylor’s cover tunes, including show closer “In the Midnight Hour,” it lacked the intimacy of his originals. Show’s lone distraction was the occasional use of say-it-see it visuals, a video of outdoor steps, for example, that accompanied “Up on the Roof.” Most of the night, thankfully, was played with no backdrop effects.