June 16, 2010 | « back

THE NEW YORK TIMES – A Pair of Durable Troubadours, Contrasting and Complementing

By Ben Ratliff

They were a strange pair, actually: dry and wet. He, 62, with the guarded, narrow excellence of his fingerpicking, putting his voice through a heavy soul-compressor, like Marvin Gaye in a telephone booth; she, 68, practicing generosity, singing as loudly as possible and straining at the high edges, coming down hard on her songs’ pivot-point chord changes.

If there still exists an idea of the American singer-songwriter as a conveyor of sympathy, sincerity and trust — Bob Dylan notwithstanding — James Taylor and Carole King are the reasons. They were grown-up sentimentalists. They sang about appreciating change. Their songs did not kick and scream. As a result they came through slim and intact. Their tandem show at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday put them both in the light that looks best on them: as collaborators and as loyalists.

How important is it that they were never lovers? Very. There might have been some references to physical abandon here and there — in Ms. King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” — but this was a concert about stability and mutual esteem for craft.

Their loyalty extends not just to each other — they worked together at the Troubadour in Los Angeles during the early 1970s, and Ms. King talked about how Mr. Taylor inspired her to write and perform her own music and lyrics — but to their musicians. The backing band for Tuesday’s concert, and for their intercontinental tour thus far, was essentially the band they used to play with in the clubs and studios: Russ Kunkel, drums; Leland Sklar, bass; Danny Kortchmar, guitar. The West Coast soft-rock wrecking crew.

They were right up there with major-to-minor chord changes and sincerity on the list of reasons that this music worked in the first place. On Tuesday, in Mr. Taylor’s songs especially — “Carolina in My Mind,” “Shower the People” — the wide-ranging, counterintuitive bass lines, brushed drums and behind-the-beat groove made it all breathe.

A rigorous fairness prevailed. Mr. Taylor and Ms. King played on all of each other’s songs, took turns singing their own and closed with a proper duet on “You’ve Got a Friend.” The stage, set up in the middle of the arena, turned constantly throughout the two and a half hours so that all concertgoers got equal face time.

The concert stayed mostly within the early ’70s: material from Ms. King’s “Tapestry” and “Music” and Mr. Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” and “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.”

Among the exceptions were Mr. Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face,” from 1977, and Ms. King’s “Crying in the Rain,” which was from either earlier or later, depending on your definition: she helped write it for the Everly Brothers in 1962 but didn’t record it herself until 1983. The many chapters of Ms. King’s life — Brooklyn girl, Brill Building operative, earthy pop star, Idaho environmentalist — never really came up as topics in the between-song patter, but their complexity might have been evident to anyone listening.

It was a concert full of bits of American roots — gospel and country and blues — but aside from Mr. Taylor’s Chicago-blues exaggerations in “Steamroller,” each singer’s individual style heavily overrode the background influences.

That individual style came out not only in composition but also in performance: Mr. Taylor’s elastic phrasing in “Your Smiling Face” and “Sweet Baby James”; Ms. King’s stretched vowels, sung with her head back. What she did to the middle of the word “pleasure” in “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” made it clear how important it is to the song. And what she did toward the end of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” — singing the most intimate lines directly to the band members, going so far as to kiss their hands — made it clear how important the songs are to her.

Carole King and James Taylor will perform at the TD Garden in Boston on Saturday and Sunday and return to Madison Square Garden on June 30.