Southsider music critic
A Tribute to the Carpenters: Valentine’s Day at SteelStacks
For Valentine’s Day, Musikfest Café presented Top of the World: A Carpenters Tribute featuring Debbie Taylor. Despite the chill in the air and the snow on the ground, music lovers poured into café seating to experience the best-selling music of the Carpenters over three decades after Karen Carpenter’s early death. It is not entirely accurate to call Taylor, lead guitarist Paul Stewart, and their team a “cover band” for they are more akin to time travelers. If audience members shut their eyes, it felt like we were transported back to the heart of the 70s when Richard Carpenter’s arrangements and Karen Carpenter’s voice were fresh revelations. For older couples in the room celebrating decades of life together, the nostalgia-filled melodies—sung to perfection and performed with gusto by a top-notch band—made this Valentine’s Day a three hour return to fledgling romance. For younger—although not young! —people born in the 70s, we were transported through music to our childhoods.
As a member of the latter group, A Carpenters Tribute brought me back to the mid-80s when I discovered my father’s vinyl records. Although I loved Carol King’s Tapestry and Dionne Warwick’s The Windows of the World, my absolute favorite album in his collection was Song for You. While I was too young perhaps to understand the optimism of songs like “Top of the World” in which a couple sets off to start a life together or the soulful longing for a lover to give it one more try in “Song for You,” I responded directly to the depth and purity of Karen Carpenter’s voice. Without frills or runs, her voice came through with strength and depth, purely holding a note in a way that enraptured ten-year-old me. I tried and tried to imitate her for the next decade, returning again and again to this album with a little more understanding of the meaning of the lyrics as I moved into and out of adolescence. Encountering this music in 2019 with an outstanding live performance, I recalled how expertly the Carpenters delivered on the emotional power of love lost, found, rediscovered, or mourned.
So, too, did other audience members as we sang along to the major hits of the Carpenters, following Debbie Taylor’s spot-on vocals. The tribute band opened with “Top of the World” from the aforementioned 1973 album Song for You. For those of us that had not visited YouTube to listen to Taylor’s rendition prior to the performance, we experienced the surprise of hearing Karen’s vocal twin. With every song, Taylor channeled the rich caramel contralto of Karen; her voice matches the deceased vocalist so closely that one could believe Karen to have spirited into the room. Beyond the tonal similarities, Taylor captured the urgency of desire for reconciliation in songs like “Superstar (Don’t You Remember You Told Me You Loved Me, Baby)” and the happy gratitude for a devoted partner in “Close to You” and “I Won’t Last a Day Without You.” The audience responded in kind, belting out our own stylistically lesser but no less passionate renderings of songs that like old friends continue to live on in our minds.
Taylor, Stewart, and their team framed most songs with historical information about the band and commentary on their connection to The Carpenters’ music. Taylor discussed how the songs are deceptively simple, but actually revealed the true genius of Richard Carpenter’s arrangements once the musicians began to recreate beloved tunes. She stated that Richard moved past the selection of typical musical instruments for pop arrangements to include cello, harp, and violin. In this way, he “laid down lush musical landscape for Karen’s voice,” she said. With reference to Karen, Taylor believes that her voice is “second to none.” She told the audience that Karen’s voice is like “velvet, satin, or butter. It’s Prozac for the ears.”
While the tribute band played many of the songs that you might expect to hear from “We’ve Only Just Begun” to “Rainy Days and Mondays,” they also offered some lesser known treasures. In the first set, Taylor sang a song released in 1976 from A Kind of Hush titled “I Need to Be in Love,” which she let us know was Karen’s favorite song to sing. They also performed “The Rainbow Connection” made famous by another singer of sorts from The Muppet Movie.
One of the more moving moments in the night occurred toward the end of the second set. As many of the band members currently live in Florida, they chose to dedicate “Bless the Beasts and the Children” to the students and families of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
As a way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, the tribute to the Carpenters was a wonderful event. With the steel stacks lit in festive purple and red as backdrop for the band, the view and the dimmed lighting of the café ensured that the ambience complemented the tone of the evening. With Taylor leading the way and crooning about life and love in stages, she sang each of us a song or two in which we could “remember when we were together” with a “true love.” Together, we joined Taylor in singing songs to whoever it might be in our lives that haunts us, inspires us, or moves us as we walked through the idealism of new romance and the pain of hopes dashed via the music of the Carpenters revived by Taylor, Stewart, and the band. It was an evening to remember beloved songs, to indulge in nostalgia and romance, and to enjoy the company of other citizens of Bethlehem in celebrating love in its many forms.