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(Above: James Taylor and Carole King are accompanied by Leland Sklar (bass) and Russ Kunkel (drums) on “Ellen” in 2010.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

For more than 30 years, James Taylor and Carole King have been writing the type of songs that fans want to hold close and wrap around themselves like a blanket. When the pair announced their joint tour, the material and musicianship were beyond question. The biggest hurdle lay in translating that intimacy to large spaces.

Taylor and King had no problem transforming the spacious Sprint Center into a cozy club for their two-and-a-half-hour performance Friday night. The stage set the mood. The raised white platform was situated in the middle of the floor, and surrounded by three rows of nightclub tables, each outfitted with a warm, glowing lamp.

The ambience was cemented when the duo entered through the crowd to take the stage. Taylor’s chair was positioned in the curve of King’s grand piano so the two could have constant eye contact while they played. Even when Taylor eventually stood up and King stepped away from the piano, the chemistry and closeness was evident.

The atmosphere was such that when someone shouted a request, Taylor picked the oversized setlist off the floor, pointed to the number and told them they’d get to it eventually.

Both singers were chatty, but Taylor had the better banter, cracking wise about calling the onstage seating “raised seats” because “high chairs” wasn’t right and “stools” sounded dirty. His wry sense of humor was also on display when he tried to set up the common theme between “Beautiful” and “Shower the People.”

“Here’s another song,” Taylor started. “I know that’s a surprise. ‘Oh, they’re going to play another song.’ Well, here we have two in a row that … I guess they’re all in a row. We tried doing them all at once, but it didn’t work.”

The sold-out crowd (although both of the end sections up top were curtained off), devoured every syllable, musical or otherwise. Each song was greeted with thunderous applause that threatened to overwhelm the performance at times. When the band joyously performed the Motown classic and Taylor hit “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” they seemed to be singing to the appreciative audience as much as themselves. The response definitely surprised the performers, particularly King, who took the stage for the encore looking at the crowd in wonder, mouth agape.

King’s reaction was genuine, but she shouldn’t have been so shocked. The setlist included all but three songs from King’s masterpiece “Tapestry” and nine of the 12 cuts on Taylor’s best-selling “Greatest Hits” collection. This night wasn’t about introducing new material, but to reunite with longtime musical friends.

“Fire and Rain,” “So Far Away,” “Country Road,” “Crying in the Rain.” Nearly every number could have been a defining moment. The biggest moments were the small ones, like Taylor’s exquisite harmony on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” on the line “when the night/meets the morning sun.” Or the way Taylor and King traded verses on “You’ve Got a Friend.”

During “Smackwater Jack” and “I Feel the Earth Move” the 68-year old King bounced around stage like a teenager. Not to be outdone, the 62-year-old Taylor strapped on an electric guitar for the crackling “Steamroller.” After blowing a harmonica solo, he duck walked across the stage. The blues song was out of Taylor’s normal dynamic, but the audience response was so great Taylor should consider cutting an album on the Alligator label.

Before the third song, Taylor introduced the band so the audience could fully appreciate the accompanists. Bass player Leland Sklar, drummer Russ Kunkel and guitarist Danny Kortchmar are collective known as The Section.

The three defined the mellow, Los Angeles sound of the 1970s singer/songwriter movement, appearing not only on “Tapestry” and “Sweet Baby James,” but several records by Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and Jimmy Buffett. Sklar and Kunkel’s playing was tasteful and understated, with every note or beat serving the song. Kortchmar relished the times he could cut loose with a solo, like on “Smackwater Jack” and “Jazzman.”

The Section was augmented by a trio of backing singers and keyboard player Robbie Kondor. Singer Arnold McCuller took the crowd to church with his Gospel delivery during “Shower the People” that was the first big moment of the set. It made for a hard song to follow, but King pulled out one she wrote that was made famous by the Queen of Soul, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” When the chorus hit, everyone in the arena became part of the ensemble.

The evening ended with the quiet “You Can Close Your Eyes.” Accompanied only by Taylor’s guitar, the two sat side by side, King staring into Taylor’s eyes as she harmonized. As the last note rang out, she briefly rested her head on his shoulder before the two rose and strolled off, hand in hand.

“This reunion has been waiting to happen since the early ‘70s,” Taylor had said earlier. But for the fans present the question isn’t “What took you so long?” Rather, it’s “When are you coming back?”

Setlist: Blossom, So Far Away, Honey Don’t Leave L.A., Carolina On 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. Intermission. Copperline, Crying in the Rain, That Sweet Old Roll (Hi-De-Ho), Sweet Baby James, Jazzman, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Steamroller, 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 (To Be Loved By You), You Can Close Your Eyes.

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(Above: Bruce Springsteen isn’t even close to being the biggest legend onstage in this historic performance of “I Saw Her Standing There” from 1987.)

By Joel Francis

“Rock Hall Live,” an exquisite nine DVD box set of performances and speeches from the past 25 years of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies is a treasure trove for all music fans, but it should especially attractive to Bruce Springsteen fans. Springsteen appears on all but two of the discs in more than a dozen performances and nearly as many speeches. As the unofficial MC of the collection, Springsteen makes more appearances than anyone else.

The Daily Record previously reviewed “Rock Hall Live.” On Monday and Friday of this week it will examine every Springsteen performance on the collection. Although these performances are scattered throughout the box set, we will look at them in chronological order. On Wednesday, The Daily Record will review Springsteen’s concert at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. (NOTE: Tuesday’s concert was cancelled because of the death of Springsteen’s cousin and road manager. On Wednesday The Daily Record will discuss Stevie Wonder’s 1968 hit “For Once in My Life.”)

1987 – “(Oh) Pretty Woman” (with Roy Orbison)

The footage from these early inductions – 1987 heralded the Hall’s second class of members – is shaky and the audio is questionable at best. Surrounded by Bo Diddley, Smokey Robinson, B.B. King, Carl Perkins and scores of other music legends, and awestruck Springsteen pays tribute to the man he immortalized in the lyrics to “Thunder Road.” Springsteen is so excited he forgets the song in a couple places, but his joy at being able to celebrate with Roy Orbison is infectious. Two years later, Orbison was gone and Springsteen paid him another tribute by performing “Crying” at that year’s ceremony.

1988 – “I Saw Her Standing There” (with Mick Jagger and the Rock Hall Jam Band)

It takes the cameraman a few moments to find the vocalist amongst the throng of performers onstage, but the camera finally lands on Billy Joel, belting out the first verse from the peanut gallery. Mick Jagger takes the second verse with an assist from George Harrison. Somewhere onstage, Ringo Starr is one of several happy drummers, making the occasion the closest thing to a Beatles reunion to happen until the Anthology project. (Paul McCartney was feuding with Harrison and Starr at the time and opted not to attend.) After a guitar solo from Jeff Beck, Springsteen finally gets the mic for the third verse. Despite forgetting a few of the words, he exuberantly finishes the number with Jagger.

1988 – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (with Mick Jagger and the Rock Hall Jam Band)

In his 2004 speech inducting Jackson Browne to the Rock Hall, Springsteen says he wishes he’d written “Satisfaction.” Sixteen years earlier, Springsteen realized part of his dream by performing the number with half of its authors. Surrounded by John Fogerty, Bob Dylan, Harrison, Beach Boy Mike Love, Jeff Lynne, Tina Turner, Ben E. King and keytar-rocking band leader Paul Schaffer, Springsteen trades lines with Jagger on the chorus. Sporting a gray suit and bolo tie and backed by E Street drummer Max Weinberg somewhere in the swarm, Springsteen is little more than a vocal prop in this chaotic number.

1993 – “Green River,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain” (all with John Fogerty and Robbie Robertson)

Springsteen plays rhythm guitar and adds backing vocals to this trio of Creedence Clearwater Revival classics. Still upset at his former CCR band mates, John Fogerty refuses to perform with Doug Clifford and Stu Cook. The tension between the three is evident during the acceptance speech, but it completely dissolves once Fogerty straps on his guitar and steps behind the mic. The songs don’t really need three guitarists, but Springsteen is elated to be performing with yet another idol and happy to let Robbie Robertson and Fogerty do all the heavy lifting. There is also rehearsal footage of Springsteen, Fogerty, Robertson and bass player Don Was playing around with different arrangements. Robertson is clearly in charge of the ensemble and again Springsteen seems content to observe. Springsteen does jump into action, however, to work out the harmony vocal line with Fogerty and to successfully lobby for the inclusion of “Green River.”

1994 – “Come Together” (with Axl Rose)

This is a bad idea on paper and it’s even worse onstage. Springsteen looks stiff, sharply strumming a black Stratocaster that matches his tuxedo. A few paces away, Axl Rose more relaxed wearing jeans and flannel as he bobs and weaves like a snake hearing some inaudible flute. This isn’t a duet so much as two performers doing the same song in a shared space. Rose’s voice is fine in its own context, but it’s rarely complementary. His performance here is so grating it makes one long for Aerosmith’s version (shudder). Springsteen seems relieved when the song finally ends.

Keep reading:

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 2)

Review: Boss is Bigger than Big 12 Tourney (2008)

Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

Review: Springsteen’s “Dream” Needs More Work

Springsteen in the Waiting Room: Drop the Needle and Pray

New DVD Set Celebrates Rock Hall Performances

More Bruce Springsteen in The Daily Record

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