James Taylor's voice is like water: smooth, clear, easy to mistake for flavorless until those momentary thirsty epiphanies where you sit upright and say "Mmmm! Water's gooood!" Similarly, while I greatly enjoyed—and was indeed moved by—Friday night's collaborative show by Taylor and his longtime cohort Carole King, I'm left with very little to remark on in telling you exactly why (though in the process of trying to, I find I've written an obscenely long review).
How do you describe the taste of water? (Perhaps by saying it tastes like James Taylor's voice.) The evening's repertoire was familiar, and was largely performed in a very familiar manner close to the original arrangements—by, among others, three of the key players on both King's and Taylor's iconic, early-'70s albums: guitarist Danny "Kootch" Kortchmar, bassist Lee Sklar, and drummer Russ Kunkel. The night boasted very few surprises. Yet that in itself occasioned the ultimate surprise—it somehow added up to a stunning, exquisite concert that I have to rank among the most special I've seen. I tried my best to keep my objective critic's hat on, but I didn't want people to think I was wearing it to cover a bald spot—no, actually, the undeniable force of the mellow (what else?) vibe was like Kryptonite to any cynicism I tried to muster.
From the moment we entered the Rose Garden, we were drawn in by the stage's layout. The stage itself was a large, white, raised circle in the center of the floor, occupying almost its entire width, save for room for a perimeter of three staggered rows of nightclub-like tables, each with a dim, gold-glowing lamp and seating two to four concertgoers, arrayed all around the stage. This "club section", nicely evoking the intimacy of the famous L.A. music haven lending the tour its title, was ringed by a short wall topped with paired strips of blue-green neon outlining the main circle. The result was a simple but powerful stage design that reached out to embrace the audience, making the surrounding arena one more in the series of concentric circles.
When Taylor and King emerged with a quick stroll through the audience to the stage (a charming nod to the way that performers likewise used to have to walk through the crowd to take the Troubadour stage), accompanied at first only by Sklar, the platform began to revolve slowly. Unlike some shows in the round with revolving stages, where the stage is repositioned at the end of each song, the rotation stayed constant throughout both sets. I initially thought this might have a cumulative queasy effect, but it turned out to be one more mesmeric component of the stage set and the concert experience as a whole. Never having seen either artist, I was definitely curious about what was to come.
Taylor kicked off the first set of the first show of the pair's U.S. tour by singing the subdued "Blossom" from his breakthrough Sweet Baby James
album (he would eventually play five of that album's eleven songs) in his usual fine voice. King answered with "So Far Away", the first of nine songs (out of twelve) performed from her era- and genre-defining collection, Tapestry
. Those twin touchstone albums, each the respective artist's sophomore solo release, came out a year apart (January 1970 and February 1971, respectively), traded guest appearances by the two performers, and were never equalled artistically or commercially by their creators. But the setlist's being structured around the songs from those two collections reminded me of the enormous impact each had on a generation of listeners. The unadorned sound, the open emotionalism, the implied community of these artists' early work makes it so timeless as to still eclipse a great deal of the music made since. It did not escape me that I was watching this concert at the same time the WW Best New Band show was getting underway; we all love exciting and innovative New Bands, but—partly due to the ensuing fragmentation of the culture—the impact and endurance of this music will simply never be equalled.
King's voice sounded pretty strong from the top; I was impressed that she was able to sing all the notes of the original melody in the original key, not changing key or cheating on the high notes like many entertainers of her age (which is now 68; Taylor is 62). Her pitch did waver a bit early on, but she warmed up over the course of the night, and the trademark scratchiness in her throat remained mostly at the level it always has been rather than showing deterioration with age. King's sometimes shaky singing on the Live at the Troubadour
album this tour is promoting, which was recorded in 2007, did not bode well, but she clearly has worked hard since on shoring up her voice, and the tour's warmup leg in Australia, New Zealand and Japan obviously helped her work out the kinks. Taylor, meanwhile, has probably never sung a bum note in his life. The fact that his voice is so free of grit or glanced notes is part of what fools you into thinking there's not much going on there; his superficially drama-free singing belies the drama going on down where it really belongs, beneath the surface of his skilled interpretation of the lyrics.
Taylor, King and Sklar were then joined by Kunkel and Kortchmar; those three musicians, collectively known as "The Section" back in the day, were as influential in their way to the sound of '70s rock as the singer-songwriters who employed them; Kunkel's tasteful, spacious drumming left room for lyrics to leave an impression, Sklar's bass playing hinted toward jazz, and Kortchmar's slick L.A. studio sound betrayed just enough of a blues background to preserve the music's roots. Also in the band was a keyboardist/accordionist and three backing singers, one of whom doubled as a violinist. The full ensemble picked up the pace a little with the Kortchmar-penned "Machine Gun Kelly", featuring stinging leads from the composer. But the pace never stayed too picked-up at this show, and "Carolina in My Mind" followed, restoring the overwhelmingly mellow vibe. King followed with the gospel tones of "Way Over Yonder" before taking her turn at a more up-tempo number, "Smackwater Jack".
King and Taylor both remained on stage throughout the concert, accompanying one another or at least providing the first wave of an attentive, appreciative audience. A few tunes further into the first set, they traded nostalgic songs (well, every
song in the show was a nostalgic song, but these two were nostalgic as originally written), King's "Song of Long Ago" and Taylor's "Long Ago and Far Away" (come to think of it, King could have saved "So Far Away" for this point in the set and covered both of Taylor's bases). Their mutual affection and admiration was touching, and obviously genuine; each guested on the other's aforementioned breakthrough albums among others, and Taylor even shared the bill at King's 1970 debut as a performer (after penning dozens of '60s hits) at the self-same Troubadour nightclub. Of course, they made their share of old-folks jokes about not quite remembering those days. Those creaky gags, and the fact that even some relatively up-tempo songs were slowed down from their recorded versions—particularly Taylor's "Shower the People", which soon followed—started me feeling the tour should perhaps have been "brought to you by Viagra and Depends"—a comforting little flare-up of suppressed cynicism. Taylor and King have cleverly figured out how not to bore audiences with unfamiliar songs while still shilling a new album—just fill the new album with old songs! The lack of hope-you-enjoy-this-new-one bathroom breaks makes that Depends sponsorship even more of a no-brainer.
The first set ended with an expansive version of the song King borrowed back from Aretha on Tapestry
, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman", showing off the lower end of King's range and generating sparks in a call-and-response between King's scatting and Kootch's guitar. After a brief merch-hawking break, Taylor began the second set with 1991's Copperline; would it be rude to point out it was the sole song of the night composed later than 1976? The pair then duetted on King's immortal hit for the Everly Brothers, "Crying in the Rain", though sadly in the lousy, slick arrangement with which Taylor covered the song with Art Garfunkel. The third song in the second set, Taylor then explained, was a rotating slot for favorites the artists often perform in their own sets but were forced to cut from the regular running order of this shared tour; tonight, that slot was unfortunately occupied by King's tiresome "That Old Sweet Roll (Hi-De-Ho)". When a song is introduced as having been a hit for Blood, Sweat and Tears, that's
your cue to hit the bathrooms. (I'd have killed for "No Easy Way Down.)
But it was the tune that followed that betrayed what was perhaps this tour's hidden weak link. The song "Sweet Baby James" tends to make me a bit weepy. And while my eyes reflexively moistened at its start, by the second verse I realized I was strangely unmoved. While typically (at least going by live performances I've seen or heard on recordings) Taylor will perform the song unaccompanied at or near the end of his shows, here it felt carelessly shoehorned into a show overloaded with big numbers, and it lost several degrees of intimacy by being accompanied by a stage full of other players. It was one time when the event of these two great artists performing in unison may have overwhelmed the effect they can achieve when left to their own devices, making me wonder if other songs in the set had similarly sacrificed some of their power.
And the hits just kept getting bigger as the setlist snowballed to its conclusion. Hearing Taylor reprise his classic harmonies on King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" was magical, and "Fire and Rain" proved a particular showcase for Kunkel's supple drums, feeling almost like percussive counterpoint vocals in themselves. The crowd, which had already rose to their feet for several standing ovations, were finally persuaded to remain there through an entire song by the groove of "I Feel the Earth Move", before things (and people) settled back down with a duet on "You've Got a Friend" to close the main set. Taylor and King were overwhelmed by the typically seismic response of the Portland audience, the latter mouthing an amazed "You're the best! You rock!" before leaving the stage. Then there was nothing to do but come out and play the real
oldies for the encore: the sublime "Up on the Roof" which King and her greatest collaborator, Gerry Goffin, penned for The Drifters; Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is", a hit for Taylor but the only song of the night written by neither him nor King; and the irresistible "The Loco-Motion", originally sung by Little Eva—Goffin and King's babysitter!—which once again forced the crowd into compulsory booty-shaking. The audience was left satisfied, elevated, becalmed and charmed. Taylor told the audience that "the rest of the tour will feel like an anticlimax" after their wild reception on opening night here, thanking us for giving them "a good wind at our backs", and even teasing that they'd return here to end the tour as well—not gonna happen, but the sentiment seemed sincere. And if it did indeed happen, How Sweet it Would Be.
A Flickr photoset
So Far Away
Machine Gun Kelly
Carolina in My Mind
Way Over Yonder
Song of Long Ago
Long Ago and Far Away
Shower the People
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman
Crying in the Rain
That Old Sweet Roll (Hi-De-Ho)
Sweet Baby James
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow
It's Too Late
Fire and Rain
I Feel the Earth Move
You've Got a Friend
Up on the Roof
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)
from the duo's Seattle show.