NJ.COM – Carole King and James Taylor at Madison Square Garden: a night of good vibrations
By Tris McCall
NEW YORK — With a satisfying snap of strings, James Taylor plucked a chord on his acoustic guitar. Everyone at Madison Square Garden roared with recognition.
Well, everyone but Taylor.
“I don’t actually know what song I’m playing yet,” he told the sold-out crowd, Tuesday, “but I appreciate your enthusiasm.”
It was that kind of night. People came to adore Taylor, 62, and Carole King, 68, and why not?; their songs have acted as analgesics for several generations of listeners. Including their two encore sets, the pair played 27 late-’60s and early-’70s soft-rock standards, and if they’d wanted to, they could have played 27 more. When Taylor said that their original plan for the show would have run six hours long, nobody took it as a joke.
King and Taylor have both made plenty of music since the early ’70s. Much of it is quite good. But the current Reunion Tour sought to recapture an earlier moment in time: the pair’s performances at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles. Taylor, whose bone-dry humor remains astringent enough to pickle apples, claimed to be unable to remember what the pair played at the Troubadour.
It hardly mattered: in ’71, the pair were at the height of their powers, setting trends for singer-songwriters that last to this day. Taylor and King pioneered a new style — comfortable, stripped-down folk-soul, indebted to Motown but far more relaxed. The songs were reassuring, patient, kind; they sang of perseverance in troubled times. Here was the pop star not as distant hero, but as intimate friend and confidante, casual, identifiable, pleasant to hang with.
Onstage, King and Taylor played up that intimacy, showering love on each other, their bandmates, and sometimes even on themselves. King, in particular, sustained her overjoyed attitude for two hours, bouncing around the stage like a kid at a picnic, and pointing at her complementary musicians with a gigantic smile on her face. (The flinty Taylor doesn’t get worked up like that.) The pair brought down the house with a warm rendition of King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” then hugged straight through the final encore.
Some of pop’s hardest-working sidemen accompanied King and Taylor: the supple Russ Kunkel on drums, longtime JT running-mate Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar on lead guitar, Methusaleh-bearded Leland Sklar on bass. This was the original Troubadour band, and their empathy for the material remains commendable. King and Taylor are excellent instrumentalists, too, and their characteristic styles are perfectly complementary. The guitarist can be a bit uptight and is loosened by the pianist’s exuberance; the pianist can get wild, and is aided by the guitarist’s restraint.
Taylor, who does not use a pick, pulls at his guitar strings with his fingertips, and produces a knotty, precise sound; King hits her piano keys hard, and punctuates her verses with glissandos and big, multi-octave chords. On King’s delicate “Song Of Long Ago,” Taylor’s guitar counterpoint was finely wrought, and King returned the favor on “Carolina In My Mind,” enlivening the song with her energetic playing.
Taylor may be the most agreeable-sounding singer in the pop world: there’s nothing flashy about his delivery, but his voice is honeyed, and he’s got a knack for drawing listeners into his narratives. His third verse is, invariably, better than his first. King, by contrast, battled hoarseness and occasional pitch problems, and flagged toward the ends of some of her upbeat numbers. She threw away some of the best lines on “Sweet Seasons,” the kickoff cut on her underrated “Music” album.
But unlike Taylor, King has rarely been considered an outstanding singer. Many of her best-known songs (and her best-known songs could fill a songbook) were written for other vocalists — including Taylor. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?,” penned for the Shirelles in 1960, captures teenage romantic anxiety as few songs do; King’s performance at MSG, while not technically flawless, felt absolutely real. It was the high point of the two-hour show, and a reminder that much of King’s indispensable material preceded “Tapestry” and the ’70s singer-songwriter movement she did so much to define.
The pair performed in the round on a slowly rotating stage. It was a democratic gesture, but also a frustrating one: for half of the performance, whatever it was that you most wanted to see was in eclipse. At times, it felt like King and Taylor were riding an extremely poky tilt-a-whirl. The best seats in the house were the ones right up against the stage; alas, they were also the most expensive. But they were priced that way for a good reason — they were offered to the public through Tickets For Charity (ticketsforcharity.com), an organization that pairs with artists to set aside hard-to-find seats at concerts. All proceeds from ticket sales go to the artist’s charity of choice. Tickets For Charity will be making those seats available at the King and James show at Prudential Center on June 25.
Something In the Way She Moves
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
Been To Canaan
Crying In the Rain
Your Smiling Face
Sweet Baby James
Will You Love Me Tomorrow?
It’s Too Late
Fire and Rain
I Feel the Earth Move
You’ve Got a Friend
How Sweet It Is
You Can Close Your Eyes