“So this is what 74 looks like,” says Carole King, who has just turned a setful of piano ballads on its head by strapping on an electric guitar and going hell for leather in the middle of Hyde Park’s stage.
She’s nearing the end of her first ever full-length performance of her 1971 album Tapestry, a 25m seller that wasn’t just a scrapbook of her divorce from songwriting partner Gerry Goffin but a formative record for many women. In a video message before the show, Tom Hanks could be close to the truth when he says: “There wasn’t a woman on planet Earth who didn’t take Tapestry to their heart”; judging by tonight’s multi-generational audience, it has been passed from mother to daughter.
It feels almost a slight to say that King is having “a moment”, but there’s been a distinct resurgence of interest in her lately. With 75m record sales in her own right and co-author credits on dozens of canonical hits for others, including Will You Love Me Tomorrow and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, she’s as eminent as pop songwriters get. Yet it’s been a confluence of more recent things – a hit jukebox musical of her life, Beautiful, and the announcement of her first London show in nearly 30 years – that has ratcheted up public appreciation. Around 50,000 people are here, and some have even watched support acts Don Henley, Ed Harcourt and King’s songwriter daughter, Louise Goffin, but they’re keeping their powder dry for King’s appearance.
She emerges, small and twinkling in black sequins, to a roar that stops her in her tracks. This recurs throughout the show – waves of applause that leave her tearful and mouthing “Oh my God”. It is deeply heartening to see an older woman – “I’m old and I’m embracing it,” she says wryly – afforded such wholehearted respect. She earns extra dividends as the evening goes on: although the arc of Tapestry is counter-intuitive, with the best bits at the beginning and end, King’s open-hearted warmth carries even the droopiest examples of the singer-songwriter movement she helped to create.
Its strengths, of course, far outrank the let-downs. Opening track I Feel the Earth Move, introduced by a crash of piano chords, is a raspy joy; the break-up ballad It’s Too Late, sung by a backing choir of 50,000, cloaks the place in pleasurable melancholy. You’ve Got a Friend, gently autumnal, produces an extraordinary mass cry-along, with people clutching their neighbours and snuffling. Will You Love Me Tomorrow, with Louise Goffin on backing vocals, is simply tremendous.
Movingly, many songs are accompanied by photos of her and Gerry Goffin as a young married couple. The pair wrote so many hits that, when Tapestry is done, she crams five into an unsatisfyingly brief medley. Why make an amuse-bouche of One Fine Day et al when you could sing these definitive teen romance songs in full and still beat a 10:15 curfew? Still, it’s an evening to remember, and a guest appearance by the entire cast of Beautiful during the finale serves only to emphasise King’s importance. Given the extinguishing this year of so many of pop’s leading lights, it’s a joy that she’s here to be feted.
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