Show Review: Carole King & James Taylor: The Troubadour Reunion at Oracle Arena, 7/19/2010

by Dakin Hardwick on July 20, 2010

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The two stars of a giant family reunion

Pollstar is a magazine that keeps track of concert tours, and around July of every year, they release their mid-year list of highest grossing tours. Usually it’s not a huge surprise. Generally speaking, it’s tried and true dinosaur rock, mixed in with a few “flavors of the year” pop artists. This time, however, the we got a bit of a surprise. Number one was Bon Jovi, which wasn’t actually a surprise. The number two really got me, though: James Taylor & Carole King. Neither of these artists have had any recent output that had much of an effect of the pop charts, and both artists have toured in recent years on their own without much fanfare. I needed to know why, in 2010, are people spending their hard-earned, recession-era dollars on this pairing, instead of on The Eagles or Christina Aguilera. So, I did what any good reporter would do in this scenario. I went to the show. And I brought my Dad, because it wouldn’t be right any other way.

As I walked into the venue, I took a look around the get a feel for the demographic of the crowd. As expected, the vast majority of the crowd was middle-aged couples. What wasn’t expected was the fact that it was middle aged couples of every different ethnicity. And, although it was primarily a “date night” crowd, there were still plenty of everybody there. We had families, we had groups of girls in their 20’s, we had teenagers. We had a lot of grown ups there with their parents, which validated the fact that I brought my own father.

As I looked around further, I noticed that a lot of other modern-day arena concert elements were missing. There seemed to be no overt sponsorship of this tour. We didn’t have videos of Carole King recording a demo on her iPhone and then emailing her daughter the track to finish. There were no pictures of James Taylor taking “Sweet Baby James” out for his first Bud Light. In fact, there wasn’t even merch table! Just a single program that was for sale if you looked hard enough. It was refreshing, to say the least, to go to show and learn they were happy with just the money used to purchase a concert ticket.

The staging was also very impressive. The goal was to create an arena-style version of the famed LA nightspot The Troubadour. Although I’ve never been there and can’t attest to its accuracy, the staging was awesome, nonetheless. We had a circular stage in the middle, which slowly spun around throughout the show. In the floor, we had tables and chairs facing the stage, creating the illusion of dinner theater. Floating above the stage, we had dual-sided screens that rotated with the stage, so during the moments in which you weren’t facing the musicians, you could still see them. It was understated, using only as much technology as necessary, and it was practically perfect.

The show began in a similarly understated way. King, Taylor, and bassist Leland Sklar casually walked through the crowd onto the stage, and opened the show with King on piano and Taylor on guitar, singing Taylor’s classic “Something In The Way She Moves.” The went straight into King’s “So Far Away,” setting the tone properly for a fair and balanced evening of the two artists’ extensive catalog of songs that everybody knows by heart. The rest of the band came on stage, the core of which was the house band at the Troubadour in 1970: the aforementioned Sklar on bass, Danny Kortchmar on guitar and  Russ Kunkel on drums, and they were balanced out by Robbie Kondor on keyboards, and background vocals from Arnold McCuller, Kate Markowitz, and Andrea Zonn (who occasionally played fiddle as well).

Taylor took on the role of MC for the evening, introducing the band members, telling stories, and making goofy jokes. King, on the other hand, played the role of the straight man, not chatting too much, and focusing primarily on her playing. They had the kind of odd chemistry you get with an old married couple, when the wife seems to be a little embarrassed by the husband’s eccentricities, but in the end is still madly in love with him. I guess when you remain friends with someone for 40 years, your relationship is much like a marriage.

The first set was devoted to the “slightly” deeper tracks, played with great passion and energy, a little less familiar than the big hits. Taylor’s voice is still in pristine condition. His smooth tenor still sounds like it did in 1969! King’s voice has developed a rich rasp that sounds better than she did on Tapestry, and the two voices, when they sang in unison, blended together in a unique and beautiful way that would soothe even the most hostile of beasts.

Sprinkled throughout the first set were crowd pleasers like “Mexico,” “Carolina In My Mind,” and “Smackwater Jack,” but, as I said before, they were holding back the big guns. They closed the first set with a blistering rendition of “Natural Woman.” King, for the first time all night, stepped away from an instrument, and truly let loose. And she was fierce! She managed to work the entirety of the giant stage, flirting with every band member, and when it came time for the guitar solo, she traded vocal riffs with the searing guitar riffs while exuding the kind of sexuality that makes your forget that this woman is nearly 70.

After a short intermission, they played King’s “Only Love Is Real,” then dueted on the Everly Brother’s “Crying In The Rain,” which was a song originally written by King. This kicked off a running gag of the 2nd set where Taylor would introduce nearly every song as “the next song she wrote,” poking fun at the impressive catalog of pop classics she has written.

Taylor then mentioned to the crowd that there was a poll on his website to help decide on the 3rd song in set two. He seemed really tickled by the song that Oakland picked for them to do. It was “Steamroller Blues,” a super silly blues song that, as far as I could tell, has no actual, discernible lyrics. It was just a lot of blues riffing and Taylor making up blusey-sounding gibberish. And, of course, he was having the time of his life doing it! The song stretched out for about six or seven minutes, and towards the end of it, Taylor was playing harmonica while walking around the stage using his guitar as a third leg. It was pure comedy, and pretty much unexpected coming from the guy that wrote “Sweet Baby James.” (Oddly enough, played next)

The silly vibe kept going with an especially spirited take on “Jazzman,” then calming down for a stunning rendition of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” with the entire band kicked off the stage aside from background singer Kate Markowitz. It was very sparse, very slow, and very delicate. Much credit must be given to the sound engineer, who managed to fill the room with such a precious sound, yet made sure to keep it very tender.

The 2nd set was closed out with a double header of “I Feel The Earth Move” and “You Got A Friend,” the former of which was the first time all night that members of the crowd actually got out of their seats and started dancing, and even King & Taylor were bouncing around, twisting, and moving as if they were half their age!

The encore, which kept the crowd on its feet, was two songs that both Taylor and King had hits with: “How Sweet It Is” and “Up On The Roof,” and after the band crawled off stage, with King and Taylor dueting on a song that was once done as a duet between Taylor and his ex-wife Carly Simon, “You Can Close Your Eyes.” It was a delightfully melancholy way to end such a stunning evening of music.

Set List:

Set 1:

Something In The Way She Moves
So Far Away
Machine Gun Kelly
Carolina in My Mind
Way Over Yonder
Smackwater Jack
Country Road
Sweet Seasons
Mexico
Song Of Long Ago
Long Ago And Far Away
Beautiful
Shower The People
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman

Set 2:

Only Love Is Real
Crying In The Rain
Steamroller Blues
Sweet Baby James
Jazzman
Will You Love Me Tomorrow?
Your Smiling Face
It’s Too Late
Fire And Rain
I Feel The Earth Move
You’ve Got A Friend

Encore:

Up On The Roof
How Sweet It Is
You Can Close Your Eyes

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