(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.