Featured Review Howard Cohen Miami Herald Music Critic

Tribute shows to yesteryear acts — some long gone like the Carpenters and Elvis Presley, some still active such as Fleetwood Mac and Eagles — abound. Some are fun, as they tap into communal nostalgia. Most make you long for the originals.

Debbie Taylor’s Top of the World — A Carpenters Tribute, a Valentine to the ’70s easy listening brother and sister duo that is now making the rounds in South Florida, is that rarity: a tribute show that lets audiences feel what a prime-era Carpenters concert might have sounded like in the mid-70s, when late singer Karen Carpenter was still at her vocal peak. But this one transcends the source material.

Sunday night at Coral Gables’ Open Stage Club, Taylor, and her eight talented musicians, some of the finest on the South Florida circuit, were aided by the shrewd use of Richard Carpenter’s original arrangements — exquisite, detailed sound sculptures that layered multi-tracked pop vocals into sophisticated, jazzy rhythm tracks. Close your eyes at this show and you will feel the ache in Goodbye to Love, the joy in the infectious Top of the World and the feel-good familiarity of the Carpenters’ nostalgic anthem, Yesterday Once More. Every sha-la-la-la is in its place.

But Taylor, and her band, aren’t afraid to depart from Richard Carpenter’s studious arrangements. Taylor and her longtime collaborator, guitarist Paul Stewart, who helped conceive this act with her, offer an “unplugged” performance of one of the most haunting numbers in the Carpenters’ canon: I Need to Be in Love.

The song was reportedly his sister’s favorite of any the pair had recorded, Richard Carpenter has said. Taylor reiterated that point as she delivered anecdotes and the history of the two dozen or so songs her group performed.

The melancholic lyric supposedly moved Karen Carpenter to tears when she was first presented with the song by its composers, Richard Carpenter and John Bettis. The words cut too close and captured the loneliness she felt as a famous woman with millions of fans on the road but with no one to come home to “in this quite imperfect world.”

In retrospect, that she would be dead less than seven years after the single inched to No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100, with a short-lived and failed marriage behind her, added poignancy.

By stripping I Need to Be in Love of its sweet, orchestrated instrumentation, Taylor revealed fresher, deeper truths in Bettis’ lyric. Dramatically bathed in blue light, center stage, Taylor’s rendition was stunning.

Conversely, for the night’s final number, a sing-a-long to, what else?, Sing, the Carpenters’ 1973 cover of a Sesame Street tune, previously recorded in concert by Barbra Streisand for her 1972 Live at the Forum album, the look of joy on Taylor’s face said it all.

Also, we’re betting that Richard Carpenter, who has made no secret of his regret for covering Herman’s Hermit’s ’60s hit There’s a Kind of Hush in 1976 because of some dated keyboard elements cribbed from the Captain & Tennille playbook of the Bicentennial year, would likely have applauded the Top of the World band’s more organic approach, which replaced the gimmicky synths with guitar accents.

Other highlights included a perky run-through of the old Motown chestnut Please Mr. Postman that the Carpenters turned into their last No. 1 single in February 1975. For that one, the band’s backing singers, Diana Hernandez, who also plays trumpet and percussion, and Alvaro Rosario, don postal bags for comic effect. The two become Santa’s elves for the seasonal Merry Christmas Darling, which was originally recorded by the California pop act in 1970 and which featured one of Karen Carpenters’ most exquisite vocals. (Her 1978 re-recording for the evergreen Christmas Portrait album was lovely but not quite as warm a match.)

Taylor delivered a version of the Yule tune that approached the original, quite an achievement when you note the late Karen Carpenter had a once in a lifetime voice. Taylor apparently proves once in a lifetimes sometimes reprise.

But the night’s musical standout came after Taylor introduced Leon Russell’s This Masquerade by noting George Benson had the hit version (in 1976.)

Some might cry foul, but I was always more taken by the Carpenters’ version, the B-side of the frothy Please Mr. Postman, and taken from the duo’s 1973 Now & Then LP. The original’s musicianship and Richard Carpenter’s detailed production put the Carpenters close to the jazz realm. Along with Karen’s rich vocal, This Masquerade was among the duo’s definitive yet most overlooked recordings.
The performance was also Sunday night’s best showcase of this tribute band’s musical talents, particularly Felix Gomez’s piano playing and drummer Jack Ciano’s drumming.

Finally, We’ve Only Just Begun, which began its life as a Crocker Bank TV commercial before becoming the Carpenters’ signature tune — as the show noted with the screening of the original commercial — is still paying dividends thanks to Top of the World’s attention to detail and musical chops.

Taylor’s Top of the World is just that — one of the best tribute shows I’ve seen in many, many years.