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Concert review: James Taylor still a comforting, engaging presence

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James Taylor still looks like a willowy philosophy professor.

He’s still soft-spoken and dry-witted.

And he still delivers his comforting folk-pop with unvarnished precision.

At Taylor’s packed concert Tuesday night at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park in Alpharetta, the 66-year-old troubadour glided through two sets of songs heavy on nostalgia but with enough newness sprinkled in to keep things fresh.

On an elegant set decorated with speaker towers that shimmered like skyscrapers and soft lighting that bathed the stage in a plum hue, Taylor and a trio of backup singers opened the night with some angelic harmonizing on “Something in the Way She Moves.”

At the song’s conclusion, Taylor recounted the story of auditioning with the ballad in 1968 for a record deal – with Paul McCartney and George Harrison in the room.

“So I know I can play the tune nervous!” he quipped.

Throughout the show, which ran close to three hours with a 20-minute intermission, Taylor engaged the crowd with quick tales about each song’s background. Too bad his efforts were marred by the contingent of chatterboxes who are becoming all-too-prevalent at concerts.

What could be heard over the extraneous conversations, though, was Taylor introducing the new “Today, Today, Today,” a rootsy chugger with flecks of fiddle, and his well-worn story about the history of “Copperline,” written about the Piedmont area of North Carolina.

With his fuzzy eyebrows furrowed and his eyes closed, Taylor usually had a smile on his face as he guided his scuffed guitar through chestnuts such as his version of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” and “Carolina in My Mind.”

Taylor, who last played Atlanta in 2011, has never been the most technically proficient singer, but, much like his songs, his voice is a soothing presence, a warm blanket that coats everything with a distinctive lilt.

It wasn’t until the final batch of songs, notably the eternally sweet “Your Smiling Face” that James’ voice struggled a tad as he sang in a noticeably lower key.

But from his tender, melancholic crooning on “You’ve Got a Friend” (which is always so much better appreciated live than hearing it on the radio for the 10th gazillion time) to his humorous growl-scats after a chewy jam on “Steamroller Blues,” Taylor sounded hardy.

This tour is billed as Taylor and His All-Star Band, and for good reason. Bassist Jimmy Johnson launched “Millworker” with resonant bass work, while horn player Lou Marini (of Blues Brothers band fame) added some stellar penny whistle.

Meanwhile, drummer Steve Gadd (thank him for the groove in Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”) effortlessly alternated between the percussive rhythm of “One More Go Round” and the lite-rock steadiness of “Only One.”

During Taylor’s second set, for which he added a jaunty newsboy cap to his plaid-shirt-and-jeans ensemble (that’s a costume change, Taylor-style), the singer disposed of most of his storytelling in favor of a more straightforward musical approach.

Of course, “Fire and Rain” needs no introduction, and the poignant ballad pierced many a heart on the strength of Taylor’s raw emotionalism.

While Taylor did bop around a bit onstage during “Up on the Roof” and clowned with his guitar at the end of “Steamroller Blues,” he mostly stayed in the two positions that are his signature – sitting on a stool or standing still in front of a microphone.

Who would want him any other way?

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