Until last season, the Petersen Events Center was a great place for the Pitt Panthers basketball team. It's always been a bear for concerts, however, and that was all the more apparent Wednesday night for the mellow sounds of James Taylor.
What that meant is that it actually took a song or two on the opening night of his tour to determine if the guy still has it.
You probably know the answer to that. Mr. Taylor's honey voice has been the gold standard of folk-rock since the early '70s and not only is it every bit as warm and gentle, at 64, he continues to master his control of it. You could hear that a few songs in when he held one of the grittier notes along "Country Road."
On this tour, there's no new album, no Carole King, no agenda other than delighting longtime fans with his deep catalog. He could have filled two hours with hits and familiar tracks, but he wanted to go beyond the routine.
A few staples, such as "Something in the Way She Moves," "Up on the Roof" and "You've Got a Friend" (a biggie on the Troubadour tour) were left on the shelf in favor of secondary material like "Frozen Man" and "Gotta Spend a Little More Time with You" and a couple rock 'n' roll oldies.
The band he's been rehearsing with this week at the Petersen is 11 strong and typically seamless, stocked with such all-stars as drummer Steve Gadd, percussionist Luis Conte, guitarist Dean Parks and 'SNL' saxophonist Lou Marini.
They set the offbeat tone, opening with "One Man Parade" and "Hey Mister, That's Me Up on the Jukebox," introduced as "a song I haven't done in forever." The sound was initially shocking, but it got better (or I adjusted).
The first set had some beauties like "Carolina in My Mind," "Handyman" and a moving-as-ever "Fire and Rain" brought to a beautiful climax with Mr. Gadd's delicate but splashy playing. Mr. Taylor strapped on an electric (a rare sight) for "Steamroller," but he didn't rock it with much gusto, and it quickly went into the rare "Slap Leather."
After the island beat of "Sun on the Moon," Mr. Taylor held up his large chalkboard set list indicating that it was intermission. "Then," he said, "we'll come back and do the second set which, in some ways, is perfectly adequate." In addition to Handyman, you can call him a humble man and funny man as well.
He arrived for set with a wardrobe change from buttoned-down dress shirt to a polo and a cap and spent 10 minutes or so, signing dozens of autographs (he would hang out after and do the same). Set two ended with a shower of hits, but before that there were more deep tracks: "Lighthouse," "Anywhere Like Heaven," "Never Die Young." "Sometimes it takes me years after writing a song to know what its about ... I still don't know what it means," he said of that one.
The first nod to rock 'n' roll roots was "Not Fade Away," which won't replace the Buddy Holly version, or the Stones or Grateful Dead version, for that matter. The second was "The Twist," a little surprise for the folks who got out their seats for rousing versions of "Your Smiling Face" and "How Sweet It Is." Also going beyond adequate in the second half were "Mexico," "The Secret of Life," "Shower the People" and "That's Why I'm Here." He bid goodnight, like he did at the Civic Arena, with "Close Your Eyes," surrounded by the graceful harmonies of his backup singers.
It's a mixed blessing that Mr. Taylor is still a little too big for the theater circuit, where this music really belongs. But even amid unkind acoustics of a gym, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer found a way to make it glow.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. First Published June 21, 2012 5:45 AM