Just four songs into their show at the sold-out Wachovia Center on Thursday night, James Taylor got the age joke out of the way. He and Carole King, he said, "were trying to remember what was in the original set when we played the Troubadour in 1903."
Yes, the two iconic artists who helped set the template for the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s are long in the tooth - King is 68 and Taylor 62.
They actually first played the Troubadour, the storied Los Angeles club, in 1970, the year they began their enduring friendship and artistic collaboration. For this Troubadour Reunion tour, however, both looked trim and fit: They appear to have aged as well as their music, as they displayed over two stirring sets.
The circular, slowly rotating stage was surrounded by tables with lamps to approximate the look of the Troubadour. It's a silly conceit - unless you had seats there, no doubt - given the cavernous size and sterility of the Wachovia Center. But, from the vantage point of the first-level stands, King and Taylor managed to present an arena-size show that retained their music's innate craftsmanship, intimacy, and soul while adding vigor, muscle, and showmanship.
It helped, of course, that the two had such superb accompaniment. Taylor's acoustic guitar and King's piano were augmented by three backup singers and a band whose three core members go all the way back to the start with the duo - guitarist Danny Kortchmar, bassist Lee Sklar, and drummer Russ Kunkel.
Taylor and King took turns presenting selections from their beloved catalogs, each providing instrumental and vocal support for the other - King's "It's Too Late," for instance, segueing into Taylor's "Fire and Rain."
To point up their similarities, King introduced a pair of songs she said they had written separately and simultaneously - her "Song of Long Ago" gave way to Taylor's similarly reflective "Long Ago and Far Away." Taylor then followed King's feel-good anthem "Beautiful" with his own hymn of sorts, "Shower the People," goosing it into gospel transcendence with the help of a spectacular vocal by backup singer Arnold McCuller.
The alternating format also highlighted the stars' differences. The lanky Taylor still has a Sweet Baby James charm and a slight patrician air about him. Most of his songs are defined by his precisely picked guitar and soothing voice, with its hint of a honeyed North Carolina drawl.
The huskier-voiced King may be living in Idaho these days, but an earthy R&B spirit underpins much of the native New Yorker's work. She nearly brought down the house at the end of the first set with "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," and she did the same near the close of the second with the piano-pounding "I Feel the Earth Move."
Fittingly, Taylor and King closed the second set with probably their most famous collaboration - "You've Got a Friend," the King-penned ballad that Taylor took to No. 1.