FORT WORTH When Casey James was an American Idol finalist three years ago, the judges were continually trying to get him out from behind his guitar, which seems silly: Even though American Idol is a singing competition and James is a good singer, he’s clearly a guy who’s at his best onstage when he has a guitar in his hands.
And he’s always come off as an easy-going guy, but James has seldom seemed more comfortable than he did last night when he breezed through a couple of 45-minute-or-so sets during his performance at the Fort Worth Symphony’s Concerts in the Garden series.
Relaxed and chatty, happy to be in his adopted hometown of Fort Worth and not far from Cool, where he grew up, James brought a storytelling air to his usual mix of originals and covers, most of the former taken from his self-titled debut album, which has been out for more than a year.
James has been touring nearly nonstop since then, and he seems more in his element in a club than in a space like the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, but there was never any sign of awkwardness. In fact, he seemed to be having a lot of fun
James gave little twists to many of his most familiar songs, adding extended intros to current single The Good Life and to his hit Crying on a Suitcase, throwing in a snippet of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition to lead into guitar-rocker Drive. He dedicated the ballad Love the Way You Miss Me to U.S. troops (James just got back from a visit to troops in the Middle East), and rockers such as Workin’ On It and She’s Money added to the concert’s energy level.
But it’s on the covers of older songs where James can really come up with some surprises, whether it’s Tom Petty’s The Apartment Song or popping a brooding bit of Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover into a long jam version of Tony Joe White’s Polk Salad Annie, a favorite James show-stopper that gives the band a chance to show off, with keyboard player Justin Barbee heightening the mood with an atmospheric trumpet solo.
James’ band -- besides Barbee, bassist Dino Villanueva, steel guitarist David Kurrasch and drummer Tim Macon -- has become a tight unit, even with Macon’s recent addition after drummer Blaine Crews’ departure. But one of the highlights of the show was when they left the stage, and James was joined by his mother, Debra “Bybee” James, for duets on Tonic’s Waltz With Me (a song Casey said he hadn’t performed in concert in about six years) and the spiritual Wayfaring Stranger, with Debra James delivering an especially strong on the latter while James traded soulful guitar parts with her.
James seems about due for another album, although he took his time with the first one, which came out nearly a year after he ended his Idol run. He’s been working on new songs (including Breaking Through the Blue, which he sang Friday night), but his touring schedule keeps him so busy -- he’ll be one of Taylor Swift’s opening acts for a stretch of her RED tour later this summer -- that it’s easy to wonder how how he’ll find time to get back in the studio.
He’s got a strong following, but he continues to need converts -- The Good Life isn’t going up the country charts quite as fast as his previous single did. The best way to experience him is live, and with shows like his Concerts in the Gardens appearance, he shouldn’t have any trouble bringing new people into the fold.