Carole King and James Taylor: Live at the Troubadour

RIYL: Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills & Nash

Like a charity softball game that trots out a pair of aging power hitters for a leisurely stroll around the bases between innings, Live at the Troubadour presents a couple of Hall of Famers revisiting past glories one more goddamn time, sharing a warm nostalgia bath with an audience glad for nothing more than evidence that their heroes – and, by extension, the audience members themselves – are still alive. If you could put this CD/DVD package on one of those old-fashioned sailor’s maps of the world, it’d fall under the heading “beyond this place lie geezers.”

That’s the cynical point of view about a project like this, anyway. And it’s easy to be cynical about Live at the Troubadour — both James Taylor and Carole King have released live CDs and/or DVDs in the last few years, and Taylor has been dog-paddling through a happy period of creative loafing since releasing October Road way back in 2002. Who needs to hear another version of “You’ve Got a Friend,” “It’s Too Late,” “I Feel the Earth Move,” or, God help us, “Sweet Baby James”? No one, probably, and if you skip the DVD part of the program and head straight to the audio portion of this live set, no one will blame you for falling asleep halfway through. As Taylor quips before breaking out “You’ve Got a Friend,” he’s been performing this song every night for most of his life; everything here has been done, and done, and done again. And better, too – King’s vocals remain as warm and honey-coated as ever, but you can hear the first signs of fraying in her upper register. As a live album, Live at the Troubadour is hardly definitive.

But its real appeal doesn’t lie on the CD. Playing one’s hits in an intimate acoustic setting has become part of the creative death spiral of the heritage rock act, but to watch Taylor and King return to their old haunt is to remember not only why “unplugged” became a fad in the first place, but to be struck all over again by the sheer quality of both performers’ early work. You can still hear the sound of barrel-scraping if that’s what you’re listening for, but there’s something undeniably appealing about watching two old friends rifle through their songbooks’ back pages, and you can tell that Taylor and King aren’t just doing it for the applause — they’re doing it for themselves, and for each other. Die hard fans will be thrilled with Live at the Troubadour, and if it’s something less than essential for the rest of us, it’s hard to quibble with songcraft this elegantly (and joyously) displayed. (Hear Music 2010)

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