NASHVILLE (Billboard) - When a James Taylor/Carole King co-headlining Troubadour Reunion tour was announced last winter, the concert industry reacted with the sort of laid-back reserve befitting the two mellow-rock icons. Few predicted that arenas full of smiling, dancing, sometimes weeping baby boomers -- and their kids and grandkids -- would blow up the box office in a summer that has seen its share of bad news for the touring business.
In an era of production bombast and fleeting popularity, a couple of sexagenarian singer-songwriters with classic songbooks put together a warm and intimate show and ended up with the surprise hit tour of the summer. Loyal fans wanted to be part of this one-time-only event, recession be damned. Not only has the tour grossed a remarkable $58 million, but the good vibes, in '70s parlance, created by the duo's pairing has provided Concord Records with a hit project in King and Taylor's "Live at the Troubadour" CD/DVD (from the 2007 club shows that ultimately spawned the tour), portions of which have become popular, pledge-inducing programing for PBS.
It makes sense that older music fans would have more discretionary income, but these are times of double-digit unemployment and devastated portfolios. So how much, then, is a memory worth? "In this economy, who has money to plunk down to come see this show?" King wonders. "Yet people are finding the money somehow, and we're so grateful. I think we represent a kind of calm in the storm."
An unrepentant road dog who has, at this stage of his career, become a summer concert tradition for many, Taylor knows what draws fans, and he saw plenty of potential in a tour with King. "Essentially, a tour runs on hits and people's emotional connection with the material," Taylor says. "That's the lifeblood of this thing, how people are emotionally connected to the material that Carole and I are doing, what it means personally in their lives."
Though putting together Taylor, 62, and King, 68 -- artists whose careers have been intertwined but who had not played live together since the early '70s -- looks like a great idea on paper, so do a lot of tour concepts.
"(Taylor's co-manager) Sam Feldman called me last fall and said, 'Don, I think I'm going to put James Taylor and Carole King together and go on tour. What do you think?'" recalls veteran promoter Don Fox of Beaver Productions. "I said, 'I think it will do pretty good.' All of a sudden we went on sale and it was, 'Whoa! This thing is phenomenal.'"
MORE THAN NOSTALGIA
Asked why this tour outperformed its expectations, Feldman, who manages Taylor with Michael Gorfaine, emphasizes the importance of "two of the world's most iconic artists" joining forces. "Carole and James personify a time in music that had a massive emotional impact on the biggest segment of the population," Feldman says.
"It's more than nostalgia for a particular act, or an album or two," Los Angeles Times pop critic Ann Powers says. "It's nostalgia for a moment, when people felt hopeful and there was a lot of possibility. And it's not like going to a Rolling Stones concert, where you feel, 'Wow, in my youth I was so wild, and look at me now, I need a hip replacement.' It's a gentle trip back. It's a hug, not a strut."
According to Billboard Boxscore, Taylor/King is among the elite tours so far this year, surrounded by stadium-level rock acts like AC/DC and Bon Jovi and ranked neck-and-neck on the Boxscore charts with the Black Eyed Peas and Taylor Swift. Total ticket sales exceed 700,000, and the total tour gross should end up around $63 million by the time all 58 shows are tallied, according to Taylor's management. The tour has averaged a whopping 95 percent capacity.
The genesis of the tour dates back decades to the pair's milestone early-'70s shows at Los Angeles' Troubadour club, first in November 1970 and then most famously for two weeks in 1971. (The band that backed them then, and backs them on the current tour, includes the legendary assemblage of studio musicians known as the Section -- guitarist Danny Kortchmar, bassist Lee Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel.)
Taylor and King were already involved musically (though never romantically): In 1970 Taylor released "Sweet Baby James" (on which King appears), yielding the massive hit "Fire and Rain," and later notched his first Billboard No. 1 with the King-penned "You've Got a Friend." For her part, King, already a Brill Building super-songwriter, was quickly becoming a top-shelf performer and recording artist, having just released the landmark album "Tapestry," which boasted such hits as "So Far Away," "It's Too Late" and "I Feel the Earth Move."
Those Troubador shows in many ways set both artists off on a string of successes that won them the hearts and minds of their generation. Taylor has remained a hard-touring artist, King less so, but their careers have remained connected in the eyes of fans. Those shows were also a watershed moment for King and Taylor, and it seems the two were intent on recapturing that magic.
"Carole and I would talk over the years about getting back together and doing it again, and when we heard that the Troubadour was going to have a 50th anniversary in 2007, that was our opportunity," Taylor says. "We jumped on that one, and got Russ and Lee and Danny back together. We did that gig, and that gave us the foothold to go forward."
OLD-SCHOOL PROMOTION MODEL
While so many are talking about new models and innovative touring deals, the Troubadour Reunion tour is decidedly old-school, and not because of the familiar songs performed. Rather than opting for a partnership with one promoter, this tour cut deals individually in each market with a wide range of promoters, many of them independents.
"We purposely did not use one national promoter, as I've always believed that there is a best promoter for the job in each market and, more often than not, that promoter is the promoter of record," Feldman says. "I don't like to change horses unless there is a damn good reason. As it turns out, there were no weaknesses in the campaign. There was Don Fox at Beaver Productions, Live Nation, AEG, Gregg Perloff at Another Planet, Jam Productions, Nederlander and Andy & Bill Concerts. They all did a great job."
Fox adds, "It obviously worked."
After late-March shows in Australia and the Pacific Rim, the tour began in North America on May 7 in Portland, Oregon, and runs until late July. A May 14 Hollywood Bowl show went on sale last November and turned into three, and the tour was suddenly a hot property, with large arenas being the primary showplace.
"They said we could add a fourth show," King says of the Hollywood Bowl stand, "but we felt we should stop while we're ahead."
King found the idea of playing large arenas like New York's Madison Square Garden (three sellouts) "sort of horrifying, because we perform introspective songs intimately," she says. "Even with the Troubadour band, it was scary to think about how that would play in arenas. And James came up with the wonderful idea of doing it in the round, and that made all the difference. It means that nobody, no matter how high up or far away, is more than half an arena away."
NOT SO FAR AWAY
Despite the large capacities, the tour captures the intimacy that the co-headliners were shooting for.
"Carole and I have the sense that we're playing to the audience, but we're also playing to each other," Taylor says. "As it turned out, we needn't have had any worry about who to play to. We've been so overwhelmed by the audience participation, the level of energy they come back with. It's like you count off the first tune and they bear you to the end of the show like a running river."
King says her trepidation was soon gone. "I knew that people would turn out to see us because of our history, and people have told us many times that we are the soundtrack of the lives of a certain generation," she says. "But I wasn't sure that we would deliver. I knew we would deliver the essence of who we are, but I wasn't sure it would translate out as far as it does to every member of the audience. But it does. When James says we play to each other, we do. But the audience is very much a part of what we do. The large group of people becomes a single collective friend."
It was King who proposed that the arena setup, a la the Troubadour club, feature some "sort of cafe/onstage seating," as Taylor puts it, for approximately 120 seats per show.
"It presented us a real problem of, 'How do we price those tickets? How do we sell them? Who do we invite to be in there?'" Taylor says. "That's where the lucky accident of my relationship with (Tickets for Charity founder) Jord Poster came in, and Tickets for Charity gave us a great way to handle that. ... They set the price and gave the proceeds over to charity."
The tables around the revolving stage give the show a TV studio audience feel and the artists "identifiable faces to play to," according to Taylor. Two cameramen onstage transmit the action to even the most distant seats on eight large video screens. The cameras "never, ever interfere with the audience's enjoyment. All they do is bring more enjoyment to the audience," King says. "So when James and I do our two songs on a stool up front, people say, 'I saw the tears moistening in your eyes at the end of "You Can Close Your Eyes."' I'm like, 'Oh, my gosh,' but that's how close it is."
Taylor, who's been a touring staple since the early '70s, has strong feelings about the current state of the concert industry. He finds high ticket prices particularly irksome.
"Carole and I were really clear about pricing," Taylor says. "What's the matter with a modest return on a ticket price that people can afford? I don't understand why people need $1 million a night to take their guitar out of the case."
That's not to say, given the unique nature of this tour, that the Troubadour Reunion couldn't have charged much more.
And people would've probably ponied up, Taylor concedes. "But when you do that, it means they're not going to go to two other concerts that year. That's going to be it for their summer," he says. "It's greedy, it's wrong, it's not necessary. People can come out and see us without taking out a second mortgage."
The touring industry is notorious for extending reunions and successful concepts to the point of diminishing returns, but both King and Taylor seem adamant that their July 20 gig at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, will be it for the Troubadour Reunion.
"It's not likely there will ever be another Troubadour Reunion tour," Taylor says, though he notes that a one-off benefit or European tour is conceivable. "It's tempting. When something works there's a great pressure to keep the big ball rolling, but the same reason it was difficult for us to finally get together and do this -- it took such an effort, the initial thing at the Troubadour followed by this massive plan -- it tends to argue against it ever happening again. Carole and I would be very surprised."
The Troubadour Reunion tour "was a confluence of events and people being together at the right time and place, and it came together very organically," King says. "This wasn't us saying, 'How can we make more money?' Making more money is certainly not something we object to, but it has to come from something we really wanted to do.
"We knew it would be fun. 'Fun' is an understatement -- it's joy. Every minute on that stage for every one of us is joy. In order to protect that, one of the things you have to do is say, 'Let's not stay at the ball too long.'"