CAROLE KING: THE CARNEGIE HALL CONCERT (1971; 1996)
1) I Feel The Earth Move; 2) Home Again; 3) After All This Time; 4) Child Of Mine; 5) Carry Your Load; 6) No Easy Way Down; 7) Song Of Long Ago; 8) Snow Queen; 9) Smackwater Jack; 10) So Far Away; 11) It's Too Late; 12) Eventually; 13) Way Over Yonder; 14) Beautiful; 15) You've Got A Friend; 16) Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow / Some Kind Of Wonderful / Up On The Roof; 17) (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.
It was probably deemed excessive to release this show officially in its own time, what with Tapestry already riding high on the charts and Music almost in the can by the time the show was played (June 18, 1971), but it is still a shame that the world at large had to wait 25 years before the tape was finally restored, remastered, and put out in CD format, because this is not just a very special concert, historically, but it is fairly unique on a personal level as well — the Carnegie Hall Concert was literally Carole King's first serious live appearance ever, and it is not every day that you get to witness a musical genius opening him/herself up to an admiring, but demanding public for the first time in his/her life.
Carole did not yet have a firmly put together backing band at the time, although I am not sure if the first part of the concert was completely solo out of necessity or because it was an intentional decision on her part — «if I'm really gonna do it, I should go all the way!» Eventually, she is joined on the stage by some musicians — first by Larkey on bass, then by Danny Kortchmar on guitar, then even by a small string section — but essentially this is just Lady Writer challenged to step into the shoes of Lady Performer, because whoever heard of a number one pop star without a concert agenda? This is not 1966 and you are no John Lennon, so show yourself.
This is precisely what makes this archival release so very special — with Carole's In Concert record that came out two years before this one, you get her as a seasoned professional, but here you get her as a nervous, evidently insecure, but still deeply enthusiastic «beginner» whose only chance of winning over the audience is being as natural as possible. You might find yourself rooting for her, intensely, as you sense the nervous tremble of the voice on the early songs (particularly the drawn-out ballads — ʽChild Of Mineʼ is just barely held together), but then, after a few tunes, there comes a realization that everything is going along smoothly, and we can finally relax a bit. Predictably, there's quite a bit of stage banter, too — little details and not particularly funny jokes that help break up some barriers and alleviate some of that tension — but Carole is such a lovable person in general that whatever she does for a giggle is fine by me.
Naturally, the setlist (as any Carole King setlist ever played) is stuffed with Tapestry songs (10 out of 12), plus four songs off Writer and three previews of songs from Music, so there will be few surprises here. The biggest «surprise», explicitly announced by Carole as "Surprise!", is the appearance of James Taylor, who duets with her on ʽYou've Got A Friendʼ and the ensuing three-song medley — well, what do you want, it's James Taylor, and in situations like these you can treat him as just another piece of reliable furniture that Carole needs to step upon in order to achieve the desired effect. (I wish there were a less crude metaphor to express just how ordinary and bland I find the guy's singing, but I refuse to strain my brain over James Taylor). At least he has the decency to disappear while Carole sings ʽNatural Womanʼ for the encore, because that would make us think that it is James Taylor who makes her feel like a natural woman, and that would be strange, because I'd say the only thing that James Taylor is able to make one feel like would be a 2-year old.
Anyway, this is not about James Taylor, this is about some great, great songs that are well worth hearing in these stripped-down arrangements — she can still make ʽI Feel The Earth Moveʼ rock quite a bit with just the voice and the piano, and ʽSmackwater Jackʼ, propelled only by Larkey's bass and the audience's enthralled handclapping, ends up almost as fun as it was on the original record. On ʽIt's Too Lateʼ, after Kortchmar has joined the group for lead guitar support, Carole makes some meyowing noises, mimicking his guitar tone and bringing some levity to the mournful atmosphere of the song; and on songs like ʽNo Easy Way Downʼ, she serves as her own backing vocalist, preserving the soaring-and-descending modulation of the vocal melody as best as possible — this is not rigid professionalism, but it's a well-meaning attempt to keep things exciting and interesting through the whole show. By the time she's done, you'll want to pin a medal on her, for a first job well done; and although I wouldn't have expected it from myself, I do find myself occasionally revisiting the album instead of Tapestry — particularly when I'm in the mood for a bit less production slickness and a bit more of that elusive «raw edge».
I will not say that this is the only Carole King live album you will ever need: 1994's In Concert and the Living Room Tour both had their own charm as well, not to mention a more diversified setlist and an angst-free, self-assured vocal performance. But this here stuff goes so hand in hand with Tapestry that I do believe that at some future point they might want to delete it from the catalog as an independent album and just stick it together with Tapestry, as a bonus disc, for all eternity. It's just one of those «well, we've just finished polishing some of the best songs ever, now all we have to do is make them come alive without any makeup on» moments that you have to experience, sooner or later, even at the expense of a flesh-and-blood James Taylor completing the picture. Totally a thumbs up here.