Tony Bennett | 10.27.07

live_bennett_sm.jpgSomehow, the octogenarian has kept his talent intact. He proves it with a stunt he does at each concert, singing an a cappella "Fly Me to the Moon" with the microphone shut off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fox Theatre, St. Louis

I’d never seen a performer receive a standing ovation just for walking out onto the stage until I saw Tony Bennett. He acknowledged the love, and took his place before a backing band of piano, guitar, bass and drums. He looked dapper in a black suit with a red handkerchief peeking out of a pocket; and his nose was amazing. In the Nose Hall of Fame, you’ll find bronze reproductions of the schnozzes of Good Times’ John Amos (tremendous, flared nostrils), KRS One (unprecedented width), Crispin Glover (a real Ichabod Crane number), and Tony Bennett, whose classic hawk’s beak is worthy of further study.

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At 81, Bennett has still got the nose, and still got the pipes. You might think that at some point his voice would have to decline—it happens to the best of ’em (I’m looking at you with sadness and compassion, Pat Benatar). Yet somehow, the octogenarian has kept his talent intact. He proves it with a stunt he does at each concert, singing an a cappella "Fly Me to the Moon" with the microphone shut off.

He starts out small, his unamplified voice gently reaching across the great void of the concert hall. You can almost hear the crowd straining not to breathe, to keep absolutely still to catch every nuance of the song. As the tune builds, his voice rises, and you hear how clear and strong it is, especially for a man of his years. There’s no vibrato at all. He sings, in love with the song, stretching out the words and holding notes in his slightly scratchy, stylish tenor. This, Bennett seems to be saying, is a true test of the human singing voice. He invites us to scrutinize his skills with no reverb or instrumentation to coat them. It’s a bravura moment. He finishes with a crescendo in volume and the crowd rises for another of the countless standing ovations of the night.

Bennett’s career is long one, and his concerts are long affairs. He performed more than two dozen standards, including "It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie," "I Got Rhythm," "Sing, You Sinners," "The Best is Yet to Come," "For Once in My Life," "Shadow of Your Smile," "I Wanna Be Around," "Steppin’ Out," "Speak Low," "Who’s Got the Last Laugh Now?", and of course, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."

He performed a Hank Williams cover from early in his career, "Cold, Cold Heart," and related how, at the time, he actually received a call from the country pioneer, who apparently asked Bennett, "What’s the idea of ruining my song?"

The crowd got very quiet for Bennett’s slow, moody numbers, including "Maybe This Time" and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." During "The Good Life," I couldn’t stop thinking about the recent dog food commercial that uses that as its theme.

The real laughter, though, was for something that was happening right next to me during the show. My tickets put me and my mother right next to St. Louis-based cheese ball lounge singer Tony Viviano. Naturally, Viviano knew the words to every song, and he sang along with Bennett softly, into the ear of my mother. She just sort of nodded along, a prisoner to his enthusiasm, occasionally shooting me a wide-eyed look.

Bennett brought along his daughter, jazz singer Antonia Bennett, and she performed a small batch of tunes, including Cole Porter’s "Every Time We Say Goodbye" and "Lucky Guy." Her distinctive voice slid rapidly yet languidly up and down in pitch like some jazzy carnival ride. It would have been nice to hear a father-daughter duet, but that never happened.

The elder Bennett was warm, humble, and indefatigable. He danced around a little during a few songs, loving to perform. At times, he made you wish you were drunk at a wedding reception, dancing foolishly to a swing band one minute, and pressing close to your significant other for a babymakin’ song, the next.

Standards are a subgenre defined by sappiness, but Bennett’s voice is a national treasure. This sort of music only became schmaltzy decades after Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Rosemary Clooney, Bennett, and so many others made their mark. There aren’t many originals like them left. | Byron Kerman

Photos by Todd Owyoung

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