July 6, 2009

The Show Must Go On- Carpenters Live at the Palladium

In spite of its bright moments, the album "A Kind of Hush" was a major setback and disappointment for the Carpenters, their team, their standing on the pop charts, and maybe even some of their fans. Certainly, while they were planning and recording this album,Karen and Richard saw with their own eyes and ears what was going on stylistically around them, so they cannot escape their decisions and therefore, the results. However, responsibility for their decline involves many parties even though Karen and Richard were at the helm.

At this point in their career, the Carpenters were represented by one of the most powerful and influential managers in the music business, Jerry Weintraub. John Denver, who was at the top of his career, was a client. There were many others. About him, Richard is quoted as saying ""we heard Jerry was somebody who actually molded careers—like Brian Epstein did with the Beatles." So, where was Mr. Weintraub in the mist of this? Certainly he would have listened to their catalogue and look at their sales and chart measurements before he took them on as clients. Ultimately, when you pay someone for their wisdom and savvy, they have to take some of the responsibility.

The trio of "Now and Then", "The Singles 1969 - 1973" and "Horizon" had the Carpenters at the highest point of their career- if not in sales, definitely in artistry. "Horizon" showed maturity and a lot of guts. Covering (and besting) an Eagles and Linda Ronstadt tune? Done. A 40s classic recorded for a pop album eight years before "What's New" by Ronstadt? Sheer foresight. Richard and John's songwriting kept improving, and Karen never sounded better. "Only Yesterday" was a masterpiece of mixing and production.

Ultimately, "Horizon" was another "Close to You"- a second landmark album to build a career on.

At the time of "Hush", someone, even Herb Alpert, who always had Karen and Richard's best interests at heart, should have said, "Too soft, no edge, cut the MOR choir! Back to the drawing boards." This album should have been redefined or even cancelled or postponed before its release. Herb was the boss. Even if they could have done what they wanted to do, Karen and Richard knew Herb cared deeply, and they probably would have listened to his wise counsel.

On the management side, Jerry Weintraub's counsel was a mixed bag. It was wise to get them to reconstruct their live show and revamp their stage persona. But he made a serious mistake by encouraging more television exposure when what Karen and Richard really needed were hit songs. Television? Fine- but use it for guest spots on high profile specials (like Olivia Newton-John's) to premier new songs or use videos, the tender of the day for the 80s. Hire some artistic talent to give them a look keeping them current without sacrificing their standards.

The sold out and much publicized tour of the United Kingdom was just what the duo needed at this point in their career. It was great to be loved and appreciated even if it wasn't on home turf. It was in the midst of this tour and their new show that I first got to see the Carpenters live while in Las Vegas. I was not disappointed.

The Riviera Hotel, at one point in time, was one of the nicer spots in Las Vegas. I would have to say that by the time 1976 rolled around, it was just sightly on the decline. The Carpenters were the main act in the showroom, with comedian David Brenner opening. (Neil Sedaka, above, was with them in 1975, and I know Karen's duet with him is out there somewhere.) We stayed at the hotel, assuming this would assure us a better seat selection. Reserving seats for both evening shows meant I had a chance to see Karen and Richard perform twice. Nice, very nice.

Of course, even though my sister and I were "of age", we were very young and quickly given poorer seats. A fast tip to our host meant a better table was soon found. Such is the way of the world and Las Vegas. After a very funny but, honestly, filthy routine from Mr. Brenner, we patiently waited for the lights to dim and the show to begin.

The announcement of Richard's name and the beginning of the overture had my heart thumping with excited anticipation. It seemed like hours until Karen appeared, but she graced the stage soon enough. The crowd applauded wildly, and there were even a few whoops and hollers. Karen looked beautiful, and she smiled warmly at the audience. For this young man, that point was the moment the show truly began.

Once we were quiet, the opening line of "There's a Kind of Hush" came slowly from her lips, with the extended phrasing of the word "all" bringing emphasis to the romance of the lyrics. If there was any doubt I was smitten by Karen before, it was now fully cemented. I couldn't take my eyes off her the entire performance.

Following it with a delicate and heartfelt version of "I Need to Be in Love" proved Karen was every bit as gifted in person as she was in the studio. Since this is really just an album review, I'll stop here before I move on to the recording. (But let me say the infamous Grease medley was a lot of fun to watch in person!)

Between performances, we walked out of the showroom. Then came concert number two- as precisely perfect and an exact copy of the first one. I walked out dazed, so impressed with the talent of my favorite duo. Then the unexpected happened.

God bless her- my sister had the guts to ask the security guard if we could meet Karen and Richard backstage. He left, and we waited. As thrilled as I was to see Karen and Richard in concert, I would never expect I would get to meet them. Returning with an affirmative answer, we followed him backstage. I panicked. What if my favorite singer was rude or uninterested? I'd be heartbroken.

As it turned out, my fears were unfounded. Karen was down to earth and friendly. I noticed how small and thin she was, but she did not look unhealthy. 

We spoke briefly with her, Karen asking if we enjoyed the show and me thanking her for the music. I was surprisingly untongue-tied. I remember sharing my favorite songs with her, mentioning "I Need to Be in Love" and "Solitaire". The only glitch: I had no film left in my camera as I has used all my shots for the evening's performances! After a few more words with Karen, we walked by Richard, who was sitting in a room. He briefly waved and then returned to business matters- and the many women who were waiting around him. My sister and I were then escorted out to the hallway from which we entered.

Months passed, and I continued to keep track of Karen and Richard and their career and chart performance. I was pleased to see them on the cover of the new People magazine, and the interview inside provided additional insight and some great photos.

I think it was late September that I wandered into Licorice Pizza and headed right to the "Carpenters" section. Much to my surprise, I saw a new album, "Live at the Palladium". The recording wasn't the best it could have been, to be totally honest, but it brightly captured the heart of their performance. Turning the album over, I saw the song line-up:

1. Flat Baroque/Only Yesterday
2. There's a Kind of Hush
3. Jambalaya (On the Bayou)
4. Piano Picker
5. Strike Up the Band/S'Wonderful/Fascinatin' Rhythm
6. Warsaw Concerto
7. From This Moment On
8. Medley: (They Long to Be) Close to You
For All We Know
Top of the World
Ticket to Ride
Only Yesterday
I Won't Last a Day Without You
Hurting Each Other
Rainy Days and Mondays
Goodbye to Love
9. We've Only Just Begun

It was all there minus a few important pieces, along with the addition of the popular "Jambalaya". Karen's drum solo is a bit muffled compared to her vibrant performance, and Richard's "Warsaw Concerto" drags on disc, but vocally, the duo sound absolutely terrific here.

The closing hits medley is powerful. Especially decades later, this is a stunning reminder of just how popular and how good the Carpenters were. Hit after hit after hit- with many left out.

For those of you who have not had the good fortune to hear them live in concert, this disc is your best bet to experience them in their more "modern" persona. "Live in Japan" captures the younger and more serious minded artists, but this album shows them more as real people than just performers. The closing "We've Only Just Begun" poignantly reminds me how much I wish this disc was truly just their beginning, instead of the beginning of their end.


Len said...

Hey Mark,
Another great column! I too enjoyed the Carpenters music while growing up in the 70's. I even remember what headlines it made when Karen was dating Alan Osmond (oh the scandal!) How times have changed....

Vintage Disneyland Tickets said...

"Solitaire" and "Only Yesterday" my two personal favorites, "Only Yesterday" is an amazing work, I just listed to it "Only Yesterday". Amazing detailed post, thanks so much! WOW, your sister has guts, lucky for you! Regarding "Hush"... Jerry wasn't a music man, he was all about entertainment and razzle-dazzle. Herb should have know better, maybe he just was'nt paying close attention? Was "Live in Japan" available on Vinyl? The Carpenters sound so much better (warmer?) on Vinyl, even my home made CD's are sourced from the original Vinyl LP's!