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)

James Taylor MySpace page


George Benson: Songs and Stories

RIYL: Anything that’s smooth jazz

When you have ten Grammys, it can’t be easy to keep making award-winning music, but George Benson may do just that with his latest, Songs and Stories. Admitting that he keeps things fresh by focusing on the basics, a.k.a., songs and the stories that make up those songs, Benson dug into the material of some of his favorite songwriters, including James Taylor, Smokey Robinson, Bill Withers and Donnie Hathaway – and even had some other tracks specifically written for this project. Then what Benson brings to the table is what he does best: play the guitar like a tasty madman and deliver soulful and pitch-perfect vocals. Some of the highlights are the Al Jarreau-ish “Show Me the Love” which was written by project producer Marcus Miller as well as Toto’s David Lukather and David Paich; the bluesy “Come In from the Cold,” written by Marc Broussard, Radney Foster and Justin Tocket; and a take on Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” that will remind you of Benson’s “Breezin’” days. And of course Benson does a terrific job on the opening track, James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” which sounds like it could and should be a ubiquitous smooth jazz staple. George doesn’t ever disappoint, and he surely doesn’t here. (Concord 2009)

George Benson website


Rob Blackledge: Inside These Walls

Mississippi-raised and Nashville-based Rob Blackledge was torn between pursuing a career in baseball or in music. But his love of music was affirmed after he decided to attend Belmont University in Nashville, a music industry hub, when Blackledge won a talent contest and had a positive crowd reaction leave him wanting more of that artist/audience connection that can be magical when it’s right. Blackledge honed his craft while touring with Nashville favorite son Dave Barnes, co-wrote country act Love and Theft’s “Runaway,” then later signed with One Revolution Entertainment. Now Blackledge has his own debut album, Inside These Walls, and his wide range of influences are all there for the world to see – James Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Ben Folds among them. That may seem crazy, but it’s not – Blackledge is accomplished on both piano and guitar, his melodies soar with his falsetto (which he wisely does not overuse), and everything is tied together nicely by producer Jeff Coplan. Among a solid set of songs, the best ones are the hummable “Early Morning Riser,” the radio-ready “Should Have Known Better,” and the understated R&B-infused beauty, “Worth Taking” – the latter of which could be a huge Top 40 hit in the right hands. (One Revolution Entertainment 2009)

Rob Blackledge MySpace page