Live At Montreux 1973
By Jim Farber
Carole King’s concert, “Live at Montreux 1973,” finds her at a fascinating crossroads. It took place two years after she altered the course of pop history with “Tapestry,” and one month after she issued the album, “Fantasy,” which demonstrated her determination to move her music boldly forward. That push-pull of intents makes the release of the “Montreux” concert on CD and DVD, after more than four-decades, a restorative jewel in King’s crown.
The early segment of the concert exudes the intimacy that made “Tapestry” a personal touchstone to millions. “Usually I don’t get to see my audiences,” King beams, while addressing a crowd cozy enough to sit cross-legged on the floor before her. “Tonight, I’m seeing you.”
Her comment came at a telling time. Six weeks before “Montreux,” King headlined a free concert in New York’s Central Park that drew a whopping 100,000 fans. The early part of the Swiss concert gave her the chance to regain a closer relationship with her fans, while performing classics like “Home Again,” “Beautiful” and “I Feel the Earth Move” alone at the piano. That kind of one-person set-up was a hallmark of the musical revolution King helped herald in the early ‘70s – namely, the singer-songwriter movement, fleshed out by stars like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens. In reaction to the theatrics, noise and excesses of late ‘60s hard rock, the songs on game-changing albums like “Tapestry,” idealized closeness, disclosure, and sincerity. The camera work for the “Montreux” DVD underscores those intents. It’s comprised mainly of close-ups and tight-shots, capturing King’s fine, and playful, piano work as well as her easy relationship as a singer with the mike. Everything about the presentation and performance signals authenticity, from her scant make-up and peasant blouse to the sisterly imperfections in her voice. It’s the face and the voice of a friend – if one who just happens to be a musical genius.
Then, five numbers into the show, King introduces a thrilling twist. She brings on stage an eleven-person band, including six horn and woodwind players. Together, they perform nearly every track from “Fantasy,” whose material was, at the time, untested. To up the stakes, most everything about the new music broke with King’s past. This was her first attempt at a “song cycle,” a format which purposely blurs the songs into an unbroken piece, starting and ending with two distinct versions of the title track. Following the “Fantasy” theme, the words to the songs found King inhabiting characters, rather than necessarily speaking for herself. The lyrics presented characters from a young man struggling with addiction in “Haywood” to an abandoned, pregnant woman in “That’s How Things Go Down.” Also for the first time, King wrote the lyrics to every song on an album herself. In terms of the music, not only was she presenting a wildly new sound, she was offering one that helped inaugurate a major trend in the ‘70s for which King has never been given proper credit. Songs like “Believe in Humanity” and “You’ve Been Around Too Long,” helped kick-start the smooth jazz movement, presaging the pop crossover successes of artists from the jazz world like George Benson, Chuck Mangione, and The Crusaders. King’s band at Montreux featured top players connected to that scene, including percussionist Bobbye Hall, horn man George Bohanon, and Tom Scott, on sax and flute. King’s pairing with Scott was particularly prescient. The Montreux show took place six months before the release of Scott’s pivotal collaboration with Joni Mitchell on what turned out to be the most successful album of her career - as well as her clearest, early evolution into jazz - “Court and Spark.”
As a pianist, King more than rose to the milieu’s high standards. Her playing has the adventure of jazz, at times recalling Steve Winwood’s work with Traffic on albums like “The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys.” Even the solo ballads, from earlier in the show, displayed a new jazziness in her piano work, suited to a festival which, at the time, still favored music from that world over the pan-genre approach it promotes today. In fact, jazz had been a covert influence on King’s music going back to songs like “Snow Queen,” from her 1968 album with the band known as The City.
Her backing band at Montreux not only encouraged the seeds of King’s jazz to flower, they brought in a host of other influences. In “You’ve Been Around Too Long,” the guitar work of David T. Walker is funky enough to have wah-wah’d off the soundtrack to a classic blaxsploitation film, while his liquid solo in “Being At War With Each Other” has the lithe beauty of a Wes Montgomery guitar cadenza. The latter song, recorded in another version the next year by Barbra Streisand, has the sweep of a Broadway ballad. The fraught “Haywood” gave free reign to the buoyant bass work of long-time King collaborator, Charles Larkey, who was then her husband, while Bobbye Hall revels in the excitement of the congas on “Corazón,” a number the whole band turns into a workout worthy of a Santana smash. At Montreux, the songs from “Fantasy” show more punch and range than the studio versions, while they simultaneously make the case for that album to be reconsidered for its ambition and impact on other musicians.
For a capper to the show, King performed two more songs alone – “You’ve Got A Friend” and “Natural Woman.” The title of the latter nails King’s character, whether in the unadorned numbers she performs from the past, or the ones with the band which show her looking to the future. While those two viewpoints might have seemed contradictory at this moment in her career, “Montreux” shows her sailing through her crossroads with ease.
Released: 14 June 2019