November 25, 2008

Carpenters Live in Japan: The Leaders of the Pack

Due to a series of unexpected and very positive changes in my father's career, on Christmas Day in 1975 we found ourselves in Hawaii for a couple of weeks. I was instantly enchanted by the tropical climate, the lush vegetation and mixture of West Coast, Hawaiian and Asian cultures.

During an afternoon trip to the beautiful outdoor Ala Moana Mall in Honolulu, I wandered into a local record store and browsed through the bins. Of course, my first stop was the divider labeled "Carpenters". Although I was not expecting to find anything, I actually uncovered paydirt. "Live In Japan" was staring me in the face. I quickly grabbed it, and my heart raced with excitement as I took it to the cashier. Of course, being these were the days of LPs, it had to sit in our hotel room for another two weeks until I could get home.

The cover of this two record set was a beautiful photograph of the duo, Richard at the piano with Karen singing into the microphone with her eyes closed. It was a very contemporary looking shot, clean and crisp. The predominately black background perfectly set up a red Carpenters logo.

Removing the first record and placing it on the stereo, I didn't know what to expect. There was a bit of a sound check, some rumblings of the audience, then an introduction "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Carpenters". The beginning notes of "Superstar" came through the speakers. Here was a real moment of truth- what would she sound like live? Was her voice a trick of the studio? No, it wasn't, not at all.

It was marvelous. Rich, deeply emotive and self-assured, Karen gently but powerfully handled one of their more difficult songs with ease. Just as on The Singles album, this song led to Rainy Days and Mondays and then Goodbye to Love. Tony Peluso's powerful guitar solo was absolutely trendsetting in the studio, but it was almost explosive live. There was a rawness about the live recording that intrigued me. The production was clean sounding, the arrangements well done and the vocals almost a perfect match for their studio versions, yet it felt very organic and natural at the same time.

The crowd responded enthusiastically to a very cute countrified "Top of the World". This was followed by a song I never really understood Richard's love for: Mr. Guder. Yes, very impressive flute solo and vocals but certainly not anywhere my Top Ten list of songs they should be performing live at this point in their career. Where was "Baby It's You" or "This Masquerade" or "Let Me Be the One"? Thankfully, "Close to You" came next, followed by a few more hits. Karen then gave an intimate reading of "Hurting Each Other", ending record number one.

Record Two: The Oldies are so much fun! Wisely, Richard decided to let the band stretch a bit and not perform a note for note duplicate of Now and Then. Starting off with "Little Honda", Richard's vocals just shine! It was easy to tell the band is having a great time during this segment of the concert. Karen brought the seriousness of "End of the World" and the sweetness of "Johnny Angel" as expected, but she counters it with very playful takes on "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Leader of the Pack". Their touring pal, comedian Pete Henderson adds more fun with his lead vocals on various other hits of the era. Surprisingly, the standout track is Richard's: "Daddy's Home", proving once more he needed to take more turns in front of the lead microphone. The Oldies set on the disc remains a reminder of our duo's versatility.

The closing side of the package begins with Karen's bilingual take on "Sing", including the Kyoto Children' Choir. She handles the Japanese- and the child performers- so well, it is difficult to remember how hard the language can be. Ending the concert, the band continues with the beautiful "Sometimes", the duo's signature "We've Only Just Begun" and the encore "For All We Know", each peformed flawlessly. The crowd appropriately shows its appreciation for their efforts.

Replacing the discs in their jacket, I was now determined to see the Carpenters live. After hearing Karen beyond the studio recordings, I was fully convinced she was the finest vocalist in American music. I couldn't wait for the next onslaught of Carpenters radio hits and concerts.
(Above, Karen with boyfriend Terry Ellis in 1974.)

Capturing their sold out tour, this recorded concert is a bit brief at a little over an hour, but it includes most all the hits. It also set the stage for the next part of Karen and Richard's career- a time of rest and a time of focus on their personal lives. Having accomplished so much at such a young age, they do a bit of reflecting on their long term personal and career goals. What comes next is considered to be their musical masterpiece by many fans, but it comes at a very high price.

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