Tony Bennett | 11.16.11

tony-bennett 75I don’t know how a man can flirt with more than a thousand people at once, but Tony Bennett can.

 

Fox Theatre, St. Louis

Tony Bennett can sing. Not Tony Bennett can sing “for an 85 year old,” but just Tony Bennett can sing. If his age weren’t interesting because he’s in a class all his own now, I might not even mention it. But it is a part of his mythos, and one that he embraces by reminding us he’s been in show business, by his watch, “50 years. Well, actually, it’s 60, but I didn’t want to seem old.” His patter includes longtime friends and other entertainers who are legends, but not so to Bennett. He talked about how he and Rosemary Clooney were “the first American Idols.” How Mitch Miller signed him to his first contract with Columbia Records back in the day, and there he has stayed. How Hank Williams called and teased him about “ruining my song” (“Cold, Cold Heart”) and Charlie Chaplin (the only name he dropped that seemed to really wow him, aside from Queen Elizabeth) wrote to thank him for “resurrecting [his] song,” the lovely “Smile.”

Here’s what a Tony Bennett concert experience (and it is an “Experience”—I even heard one audience member mention to another that he bet seeing Bennett was “on a lot of people’s bucket lists”) is like. It got started about 10 minutes late after those who apparently wait to be “seen” in the lobby finally take their seats. Or maybe they were just waiting for drinks because the old “saloon singer” allowed booze in the Fox auditorium. His younger daughter and youngest child, Antonia Bennett, 35, was his opening act. She started with “Too Marvelous for Words,” and ran through a short set, including the lesser known but lovely “Sail Away” by Noel Coward. She later joined her father for a duet on Stephen Sondheim’s “Old Friends.” She needs to work on diction—“marvelous,” for example, is not pronounced “marvel-ISS”—but she wasn’t bad.

The crowd was there for one man, however, and he entered before8:30and stayed until nearly 10. He didn’t drink water—there was none on stage—or sit down. The ubiquitous “cabaret stool” was missing. Except to pause to tell a story or showcase his musicians (“the boys,” all but one far away from boyhood), he sang straight through. He sounded a bit scratchy on his first number, “Watch What Happens,” and here is my note from that moment: “Now it’s all about the phrasing.” Wrong! When he got into “They All Laughed,” that old Bennett magic kicked in. His tempo—the “one, two…four” count makes his lyrics sound like conversations intact. His vibrato is strong and he can hold a note. He still has power. He proved that he can do a 360 spin and can, well, not exactly dance, but move his feet fast. He is, in short, a near-freak of nature, running through an almost unbelievable song list that wasn’t available to us in advance, and there was no printed program.

Wherever he goes, his amazing pianist Lee Musiker goes, too. Musiker’s solos are a highlight. If there is a centerpiece of the show, it is “Maybe This Time” (from Cabaret) with the lyrics slightly altered to fit a male (“Mr. Peaceful, Mr. Happy”). He sang the song through with passion, and then Musiker made a concerto out of Kander and Ebb’s anthem. After that, Bennett ran it again only more contemplatively, slowly building to a dramatic meeting of voice and piano. Some might have found it a bit much, but I loved it. Bennett “soloed” with each of his musicians and then backed off to showcase Gray Sargent, masterly on guitar, Harold Jones (“Count Basie’s favorite drummer”) and Marshall Wood, as good a standup bass player as I’ve heard. Musicians of this quality do some of the heavy lifting for the singer, but we never lose sight of the fact that this is Tony Bennett’s night and he owns the stage.

And he loves it. He seems to draw life from the audience and they give him their all, too. He manages to get countless standing ovations, just by holding out his hands. The house lights come up and the energy between singer and fans is palpable. He came back for two encores and honestly, by the second, he was starting to sound a little raspy until he did one of the most flagrant bits of showing off I’ve witnessed: After praising the Fox’s acoustics (what?) he had the mics turned off, and performed “Fly Me to the Moon” with only guitar accompaniment. And it wasn’t bad at all. Impeccable in a dark suit and smiling all the way, Bennett has never tried to be “cool,” like Bobby Darin in his folk period or Sinatra in the ’60s (perhaps in his Mia Farrow period); therefore, he defines “cool.” He just brings the music, mostly old (and he says “I sing old songs,” in the show), some newer, and a few new.

He wooed St. Louislike a lover. We showed him what perseverance is all about (the sixth game of the World Series), he told us. We are the most patriotic city in the country, according to him. (“Aw, c’mon Tony, I bet you say that to all the cities.”) We are the best audience ever, he cried. And then he sang to us. I don’t know how a man can flirt with more than a thousand people at once, but Bennett can. He mentioned how honored he is that, for the first time, his new album Duets II is number one on the Billboard Top 100. He promoted his Thanksgiving night guest appearance on Lady Gaga’s television special. He told us he had just received an invitation to do his sixth command performance before the Queen of England. One fan was so overcome, he literally howled. And Tony Bennett smiled and sang on. | Andrea Braun

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