Memory is a tricky thing, James Taylor told an adoring crowd that had packed into the Troubadour for a rare intimate reunion of Taylor and his old pal Carole King. He said he doesn’t remember much about the years when the ’60s gave way to the 1970s, but Taylor is keenly aware of where he was when he first heard “You’ve Got a Friend.” The balcony of the Troub was the spot — he’s positive about that — and he’s keenly aware of the origins of those early tunes, how tampering and updating is unnecessary and how one tune after another from his earliest years can keep the memories flowing for others.
At the opening of a three-night stand, King, seated at the piano, stuck with the music from “Tapestry,” and Taylor, centerstage with guitar, played songs from his Apple Records debut and “Sweet Baby James.” They swapped stories and alternated between each other’s songs, Taylor opting for lightheartedness in his delivery and commentary, King searching for meaning by adding emphasis to poignant lyrics and talking about friendship and community. The intimacy of the venue aided their efforts, but the demeanor of this performance was not all that different from what’s presented at perfs given at local venues such as the Hollywood Bowl and the Greek Theater.
Taylor, whose career has been the far steadier of the two, is clearly the more effortless performer. He settles into a laidback zone with songs such as “Blossom” and “Machine Gun Kelly,” steering clear of enhancing the better-known material — “Fire and Rain,” “Country Road,” “Carolina in My Mind” — to sell it to a crowd weaned on this music.
King, who appeared to be having more fun than Taylor, is a far more deliberate singer — and squeezing a 65-year-old voice into 40-year-old songs written for teen voices and soul singers can be an overwhelming task, but she had a high success rate. She plays it smart, though, employing the rasp in her voice to emphasize gritty portions of “Smackwater Jack” and extending “It’s Too Late” by adding solo space for herself and guitarist Danny Kortchmar until the piece resembles Traffic’s “Low Spark of the High-Heeled Boys.” For “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” she generated warmth by leading a sing-along; she did some bold scatting during Taylor’s “Steamroller Blues.”
Perf benefited greatly from the presence of Taylor’s studio band from the 1970s and the bulk of the ’80s, members of which also have King credits. (King, by the way, was the pianist on “Sweet Baby James.”) And the trio impeccably delivered their familiar styles: Lee Sklar created a pocket with thick, sliding bass lines; Kortchmar added meaty bits with blues-based riffs; and Russ Kunkel was consistently on time with his out-of-the-ordinary fills.
The Taylor-King double bill is a six-show fund-raiser to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the club. It’s a tribute to a November 1969 booking, the month before Taylor recorded “Sweet Baby James” and the year King began making the transition from East Coast songwriter to West Coast performer.
At the time, the homegrown Los Angeles scene had grown fallow, and Taylor and King were part of a wave of performers whose songwriting, and in some cases performing, skills were already established elsewhere. While the Sunset Strip scene preceded this wave and the country-rock era would follow it, King, Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Neil Diamond were among the transplants who kept the Troubadour on the map, creating mature and smartly crafted pop music given an airy and earthy presentation. Their works set the bar for the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement.
And for nearly 90 minutes Wednesday, that attention to detail and capturing those moments of invention were spot on — until they tried to mesh King’s 1970 ballad arrangement of “Up on the Roof” with Taylor’s cloying and dated arrangement that was a hit record in 1979. King’s take wins in terms of taste; Taylor, however, sonically overpowered her. Sadly, the effort was a reminder that the lightning bottled from 1969 to 1972 lasted for only that brief time, that commercial constraints entered the picture and that the next chapters in their careers didn’t have the staying power of the early work.
That moment aside, Taylor and King reminded us about the intensity of song, that the artistically rich and commercial viable are not mutually exclusive and how one tiny club continues to be a birthing room for some of this city’s most memorable music.