Live at the Troubadour, a nostalgia-trip meeting of Carole King and James Taylor on the stage of one of L.A.’s most hallowed clubs, debuted at number four on the Billboard 200. This is maybe a little surprising. The CD/DVD combo is a pleasant trip down memory lane, but with so many other roadmaps available, who really needs this one when the original albums provide a more direct route to the past?
Granted, there are surely worse things than spending 75 minutes with Carole King and James Taylor, particularly when they avoid anything of more recent vintage than 1971. There’s certainly no reason to complain about the set-list; all of Taylor’s earliest hits are present, along with half of Tapestry and several songs that demonstrate the overlap of the artists’ careers (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, “You’ve Got a Friend”, “Up on the Roof”). The rationale seems to have been that these would’ve been the songs you’d have heard them play at the Troubadour almost 40 years ago. But it’s also a tacit acknowledgment that King and Taylor are both decades past their peak. Tapestry and Sweet Baby James remain among the handful of albums that define the singer-songwriter outbreak of the early ’70s, and although both artists would continue to have hits and loyal fan bases, neither would record a better or more satisfying album.
So why has Live at the Troubadour performed so well? It can’t be that Tapestry and Sweet Baby James have gotten boring, and it seems likely that this live album will send listeners back to the original albums with renewed enthusiasm, rather than prompt them to hit “play” on this one again. This begs the question: who will listen to Live at the Troubadour more than once or twice?
Well, as a one-time experience — or two-time, if you must, although the DVD alone is probably the more engaging document — it’s much more pleasant than history would lead you to expect. Taylor’s mannered singing on “Country Road” and King’s corny coda to “You’ve Got a Friend”, in which she sings about the Troubadour, are the only cringe-inducing moments. Otherwise, most of these midtempo oldies are taken at a slightly slower pace than back in the day, and there’s an occasionally gauzy, stereotypically “soft-rock” feel to the arrangements, but nothing that would suggest that this pairing, at this moment, was any kind of mistake. Taylor is generally in excellent voice — frankly, his voice hasn’t changed a whole lot over the course of his career — and King only sounds like she’s stretching when she’s reaching for a high note or on the faster numbers, when an exhortation like “Yeah!” comes across half-assed. On a more pleasant note, her harmonies on “Sweet Baby James” are a nice surprise, and it’s tempting to wish she’d added more throughout the show.
But none of the charms of Live at the Troubadour make it a substitute for the original records, and the relative novelty of this being King and Taylor together doesn’t really add enough to the music to make it the sort of thing to return to. That the performance is warm and engaging is perhaps a minor surprise; that it’s ultimately forgettable shouldn’t be.