By Paul de Barros / Seattle Times music critic
For nearly three hours Saturday night, James Taylor transformed the sprawling KeyArena into an intimate living room.
Chatty and relaxed in sport coat and jeans, the 66-year-old, bald-pated singer-songwriter delivered an expertly paced show, mixing old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, vocals and instrumental jams. He even signed autographs and posed for phone photos with fans at the edge of the stage — including one young lady who brought her dad as an early Father’s Day present.
Age does not seem to have affected Taylor’s slightly serrated tenor, which sliced across the venue with alternately mournful and celebratory clarity.
He divided the evening into two sets. Images scrolled behind him on a screen and on four pillars at each side of the stage and on the apron of the drummer’s dais.
Telling stories between songs, Taylor recalled the first time he heard Carole King sing “You’ve Got a Friend,” at the Troubadour in Los Angeles.
“I couldn’t wait to get my guitar,” he said. “I didn’t realize that I’d be singing that song every night for the rest of my life.”
But he was clearly not complaining. Like the old pro he is, he sang King’s paean to paldom as if for the first time.
Ditto for other hits by the five-time Grammy-winner and multimillion-selling artist.
Taylor has a touch of the roving preacher, which shone brightly in “Country Road,” with sawing fiddle and curling electric guitar. Pennywhistle added Irish flavor to his empathetic dramatic monologue, “Millworker.”
But the highlight of the first set was “Carolina on My Mind,” which drove home the North Carolinian’s abiding affection for the natural world.
On “You and I,” a lovely new chamber ballad, Taylor sang the praises of midlife love, with pedal steel guitar and acoustic piano for backup. He dived down to his voice’s rich lows on “Handy Man,” and facetiously busted a move on “Mexico,” timbales crackling.
He somehow turned “Fire and Rain,” a deeply sad song, into a triumphal anthem.
The crowd, almost all baby boomers, brought Taylor back for three encores: “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” “Shower the People” and the quietly perfect closer, “Wild Mountain Thyme.”
There are no doubt many encores to come. Taylor’s songs gain richness and new meaning as they age.
Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247, firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @pdebarros