June 1, 2010 | « back

THE NEW YORK TIMES – Touchstones in Concert, Reweaving Harmonies

PERCHED on the arm of a couch in a hotel room here, James Taylor recalled the first time he heard Carole King sing “You’ve Got a Friend.”

“I stood outside a little dressing room up on the balcony,” Mr. Taylor said, referring to the Troubadour, the Los Angeles club that served as ground zero for the singer-songwriter movement in the early 1970s, “and I just had to find my guitar and figure out how that song went.

I said: ‘She’s written it. That’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ right there.’ ”

Mr. Taylor recorded the song, and in 1971 it provided the first and only No. 1 hit of his career. That same year Ms. King included “You’ve Got a Friend” on “Tapestry,” a landmark album that established her as a superstar and went on to sell more than 10 million copies in the United States. Perhaps more important, however, is the song’s enduring theme. As the critic Jon Landau, who would go on to manage Bruce Springsteen, wrote in Rolling Stone, the album’s subject is “the search for lasting friendship, friendship that can be trusted, friendship that can be felt.”

Those words might also serve as the theme of Ms. King and Mr. Taylor’s “Troubadour Reunion” world tour, which will come to Madison Square Garden for three shows this month. Since they hit the road in March, visiting Australia, New Zealand and Japan before arriving in the United States last month, their sets have been stretching close to three hours (including a brief intermission) with the two of them onstage the entire time.

They are performing more than two dozen of their individual hits, while providing harmony vocals and instrumental support for each other (Mr. Taylor on guitar, Ms. King on piano). The core of their band — the guitarist Danny Kortchmar, the bassist Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel on drums — further rounds out the reunion. All of these musicians played with Ms. King and Mr. Taylor at the moment of their ascent four decades ago. Mr. Kortchmar introduced Mr. Taylor to Ms. King in 1969; the two men first played together in their teens.

Those deep connections have made the tour’s shows something like a Thanksgiving dinner in an Ann Beattie novel. “Tapestry” and Mr. Taylor’s albums “Sweet Baby James” (1970) and “Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon” (1971) are definitive boomer touchstones, and because they capture the collaborative apex of the singers’ interwoven careers, they account for many of the songs in the show. Their fans remain perhaps the last reliable — and dependably solvent — demographic in a music industry that has been hammered into fragments by the Internet. Since the tour arrived in the United States, they have been turning out in force, leaving sold-out arenas and million-dollar-plus grosses in their wake.

“Softer rock doesn’t tend to do well in arenas,” said Gary Bongiovanni of Pollstar, a magazine that tracks the concert industry. “You need something really special to make it work, and that’s these two together.”

At their hotel before a performance in San Jose, Ms. King, 68, and Mr. Taylor, 62, communicate with the ease of old friends. They affectionately defer to each other, careful not to hog the interview spotlight. Wearing a long-sleeve blue T-shirt and black jeans, Mr. Taylor is cerebral and self-effacing. His sentences, lightly honeyed with the drawl of his North Carolina upbringing, meander with professorial grace.

Ms. King, in a sleek black suit, alternates the New Age mysticism of the American West — she has lived in Idaho for many years — with no-nonsense street smarts. However far removed, she’s a Brooklyn girl born and raised, with the accent to prove it. “James says things more quietly,” Ms. King explained at one point. “I gush.”

Ms. King has been a formidable presence on the music scene since, as a teenager, she wrote “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” for the Shirelles in 1960 with her husband at the time, Gerry Goffin. Working primarily with Mr. Goffin, she wrote a staggering number of hits for other artists in the 1960s, including “Up on the Roof,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Don’t Bring Me Down.” She was reluctant to perform, however, until Mr. Taylor invited her to play piano in his band. He had a hidden agenda. In the middle of his sets, he would bring Ms. King forward to sing a few of her songs.

“It was time for Carole to step into her shoes,” Mr. Taylor said. “That was an exciting thing to see.”

Ms. King said, “James is modestly leaving out that he was the one who made me go forward.”

“To hear him sing ‘Sweet Baby James’ or ‘Something in the Way She Moves,’ ” she added, “I used to stand backstage when I was his piano player while he did an acoustic set by himself, and I would listen and mentally sing the harmonies. I would think, ‘I can just listen to him do that forever and ever.’ ”
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The idea for a collaborative tour first came up in 2007 when Mr. Taylor and Ms. King performed a series of shows together at the Troubadour to commemorate the club’s 50th anniversary. (A live album drawn from those performances currently sits at No. 11 on the Billboard charts.)

Whenever they ran into each other over the years, they often spoke of doing “something” together. Suddenly the time seemed right.

As reunions go, this one is less dramatic than some others from the period. While Ms. King and Mr. Taylor performed and recorded together quite a bit in the early 1970s, they were never formally a duo. They never fell out and never broke up. Most significantly — and highly uncharacteristically for those freewheeling times — they were never lovers, so there was no complicated personal history to resolve. If the tour can be said to have a message, it’s that not everything has to end — or end badly.

“It’s nice to see a man and a woman who have continually respected what they meant to each other professionally,” said Sheila Weller, the author of “Girls Like Us,” a book about Ms. King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. “It’s like the people in ‘The Big Chill’: ‘I will never let you down. No matter where you are, call me and I’ll come.’ ”

The filmmaker Morgan Neville, who is working on a documentary about Ms. King and Mr. Taylor, said: “You almost can’t believe that two people with that much history can still feel that warm toward each other. But it’s genuine, and it comes across onstage. I think that’s a lot of what people are responding to — that rapport. The tour is definitely more than the sum of its parts.”
That much was evident when Ms. King and Mr. Taylor strolled onto the stage smiling, hand in hand, at the HP Pavilion at San Jose. The crowd itself seemed surprised by the depth of feeling the sight of them unleashes, so its greeting started out as polite applause but steadily built into a resounding roar. As the two unfurled a stream of instantly recognizable songs — “So Far Away,” “Carolina in My Mind,” “It’s Too Late” — pictures of them from 40 years ago appeared on screens above the stage. The images were received with the giddy delight — and occasionally tears —of old family photos. Suddenly Mr. Taylor, with his thick, dark hair down to his shoulders, is back to the days when he looked like a brooding young poet; Ms. King, with her soft curls and soulful eyes, is once again a hippie earth mother.

All of this might seem like little more than a warm nostalgic hug were it not for the quality of Ms. King’s and Mr. Taylor’s songs, which have earned each of them a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Then there is the matter of all the blood on the tracks, the inevitable breakage on the trail of their long lives and those of their fans. Mr. Taylor may be a reassuring figure now, but for decades he was a drug addict who hung desperately on the edge of the abyss.

“Lookit, I been in and out of mental institutions, strung out on drugs, and living with friends for the past five years,” Mr. Taylor told The New York Times in 1971. “I’m not strong right now to be blown up to superstar proportions. It may destroy me.”

Both he and Ms. King have endured ravaging divorces and breakups, career ups and downs. Yet here they are, still telling their stories and performing their songs together. They are both grandparents now, and Mr. Taylor is the father of 9-year-old twin boys with his wife, Kim, whom he married in 2001.

“When you reach a certain age, I don’t think anybody escapes unscathed,” Kim Taylor said. “Maybe that’s why his songs have endured, and Carole’s too. I mean, ‘Tapestry’ was so important for me. Those songs were real anchors. I went to a girls’ school, Smith, and every single room you went into, there was that cover of her with the cat and the jeans.”

Nor is the impact of their songs exclusively confined to their demographic. The ferociously contemporary Lady Gaga brought her father to see Ms. King and Mr. Taylor perform in Sydney, Australia, and went backstage with him to meet them. (Lady Gaga’s outfit prompted a question from Mr. Taylor’s son Rufus: “Dad, why is she wearing a rubber bathing suit?”) As they spoke, Lady Gaga began to cry, saying she was overwhelmed to meet two people whose music, particularly “You’ve Got a Friend,” had helped her through adolescence.

It was a scene the two artists have witnessed many times. “We’ve been lucky to have our music be the soundtrack to people’s lives — and, by the way, our own,” Ms. King said.

That sense of a long, rich relationship between the artists themselves, and between the artists and their fans, also lends a certain urgency to the tour. “It’s like we went away and had a lifetime of performing and experience, and now we’re getting together,” Mr. Taylor said. “That’s the energy of a reunion. But I don’t think we would have wanted to wait a whole lot longer than doing it now. This was the time to do it.”

Part of the reason is simply chronology. “I feel gratitude to have the stamina to do this show at 68,” Ms. King said. “Frankly, that was the one thing I was concerned about. I was a little concerned about my vocal stamina, but that seems to be there. But it’s a very high-energy show. I’m doing the Carole King earth-move workout out there.”

Despite interest from promoters to take the tour to Europe and South America, current plans are for it to end in Anaheim, Calif., on July 20.

“Carole said something interesting early on,” Mr. Taylor noted. “She said, ‘Not only do you want to leave the people wanting more, you want to leave yourself wanting more.’ That’s really wise. It’s smart to know when to quit.”

Ms. King added brightly: “But we’re just at the beginning of it right now. We’re really psyched.”