MUSIC REVIEW: Carole King and James Taylor at Tanglewood
Carole King and James Taylor
July 4, 2010
July 4, 2010
Review and photography by Seth Rogovoy
(LENOX, Mass., July 4, 2010) – In the past few years, there’s always a point in James Taylor’s concerts during his song, “Shower the People,” where he hands the spotlight over to backup vocalist Arnold McCuller and lets his singer strut his stuff. With his incredibly strong voice, McCuller does a kind of free-verse gospel-style testifying that typically winds up a high-energy point of the show, and indeed, at Tanglewood on Sunday night, McCuller garnered the first standing ovation of the evening for his inspired solo.
Then, in his quintessential deadpan, Taylor says (and said) something like, “Arnold sounded really good last night. (Pause). A little too good,” acknowledging that for a brief moment, McCuller blew Taylor off the stage.
That’s a tribute to Taylor’s generosity of spirit and his Buddha-like self-awareness of his own strengths and limitations. All the more reason to credit Taylor with going out on tour with Carole King this year. Surely Taylor must have known in advance what the audience would be treated to – King, age 68, blows the 62-year-old Taylor off the stage, with her incredibly deep and powerful, R&B-based songbook, her high-energy performance, and her astoundingly rich and soulful vocals.
Taylor, of course, is no mere piker, and on any good day – and they always are good days, as he is a consummate pro – a Taylor concert is an intimate reunion with an old friend. But King is a living legend who transcends the moment, and this was clear at Tanglewood, in a round-robin-style show that started and stopped with each round of her performance.
While the many precious King-Taylor duets on the latter’s songs – most of them drawn from his early albums, with a heavy emphasis on his Sweet Baby James album – were touching and nostalgic, especially rendered with backing by the original musicians, who formed a superb group for this occasion playing both for Taylor and King (these were the same guys who backed King on her landmark album, Tapestry, one of the greatest recordings of the rock era and one which she relied on heavily for her own setlist, much to the delight of the audience), it was King’s songs, with their roots in soul, gospel, R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll, that stole almost all the thunder.
It helped that King is a dynamic performer who knows how to command focus, even when seated at the piano, as she effortlessly played her complex gospel riffs while singing looking out at the audience on tunes like “Way Over Yonder” and “Sweet Seasons.” (Yeah, the hits kept coming, even ones we’d totally forgotten about.) And it helped that with the passing of the years King’s vocals have only grown richer, so that they boasted more texture, with a hint of a rasp, but plenty of vibrato and as much soul as ever. When she sang Aretha Franklin-identified numbers like “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” a listener was left feeling, who needs Aretha when you can have Carole singing her own song with as much or more soul (and less show) than the queen of soul herself?
King was a great entertainer, too, bouncing around the stage, dancing, playing numbers on guitar or running around singing to the musicians with a handheld mike, in contrast with Taylor, who is as much a fixture on stage as he is at Tanglewood and in the Berkshires.
Assembling the original trio of guitarist Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, drummer Russ Kunkel, and bassist Leland Sklar, the original musicians who backed Taylor and King on their landmark albums, was a brilliant move, and Kunkel and Sklar in particular brought a very different feel to Taylor’s numbers than longtime fans are used to from his regular touring band. This isn’t to disrespect drummer Steve Gadd or guitarist David Landau or keyboardist Larry Goldings – those guys are great in their own way. But the Section, as they’re sometimes called, brought a more stripped down, organic approach to Taylor’s material that lent it, ironically, more heft. In this case, less was more, and the more ambivalent, darker undertones of familiar tunes, like “Country Road,” for example, were forefronted.
None of this is to denigrate Taylor, who was as usual self-effacing in referring to Austen Riggs Psychiatric Center in Stockbridge as his “alma mater” in the course of introducing “Fire and Rain” as having been written just down the block, and with that late-concert number, Taylor finally received the standing ovation that McCuller and King had already garnered much earlier.
Really, all this speaks to Taylor’s humility and generosity. This is a man and an artist who knows himself, his strengths and limitations, and thus isn’t afraid, as he did last year, to share a stage with a Sheryl Crow or a Yo-Yo Ma, or this year, with the fabulous Carole King, who, it turns out, wrote not only the Book of Love, but pretty much a major portion of the Great American Rock Songbook, and then turned around in 1970 and reinvented herself as a singer-songwriter while simultaneously breaking the mold. Very few if any have equaled her accomplishments since, and all credit devolves to James Taylor for reminding his audiences of this by teaming up with his former creative partner and bringing her back out in front of the public for this “Troubadour Reunion” tour that winds up its three-night residency at Tanglewood tonight.
Seth Rogovoy is Berkshire Living’s award-winning music critic and editor-in-chief.