So, I may have to redo that Facebook quiz on the "Top Five Concerts I've Ever Seen," because Tony Bennett just killed at the Flynn last night. Was there anybody else in the sold-out house? Because it felt like he was singing just for me.
My musical tastes are pretty eclectic. I suppress a smirk when someone takes pains to explain a rock reference to me, thinking the classical music girl doesn't know her Fuel from a fugue. Well, maybe it's better that my rebel-without-a-clue phase is a well-guarded secret.
Hearing the Great Crooners is another secret love. I guess I fell for their music--the old American songbook standards--in college, where we were immersed in Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and the Gershwins. A cappella singing groups belted out their tunes on practically every street corner, and a dozen film societies constantly screened old movie musicals. Fred and Ginger in Top Hat (1935) beat a long night in the library every time.
Over the years, I've been lucky enough to catch live performances by some of the greats--Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé--and other amazing singers you wouldn't exactly classify as "crooners," such as Ray Charles, Harry Belafonte and B.B. King. When I found out I was going to be able to see Tony Bennett last night, I couldn't wait to share the awesome news with my friends. Their reactions ranged from "Who?" to "That old guy?" and "Why are you so damn excited?" Only my dad expressed enthusiasm. His chipper reply to my text: "Enjoy the show, and let me know how it goes!" (Dad, 69, is getting into texting lately.)
Well, the vast majority of the Flynn crowd appeared to be my dad's age--and up. But I didn't care. I also didn't care that my last-minute press pass meant that I had to stand at the back of the house for the whole show. Bennett blew me away. Just a month shy of his 83rd birthday, he is one of the most energetic, engaging and enthusiastic performers I've ever seen. He's been doing this for 60 years, folks! And he still seemed delighted--privileged, even--to be singing for us.
Tony's daughter, Antonia--a budding jazz singer herself--opened the concert with three numbers, backed by her dad's musicians. Her cool, breathy rendition of "The Nearness of You" set the evening's magical tone. These old standards captivate you. They take you back to a simpler time. Maybe it's a time that never existed. But, damn...it's one that should have!
"The old songs are better than the new songs," Tony said as he introduced the 1926 Gershwin tune, "Who Cares." "It's amazing how relevant it is," he added with a smile and shake of his head. And the audience laughed at the opening lines: "Let it rain and thunder!/Let a million firms go under!/I'm not concerned with/The stocks and bonds that I've been burned with...Who cares what the public chatters? Love's the only thing that matters!"
And over the course of about two dozen numbers, Bennett proved his case about how great the old standards really are. Bennett brought out the sweet simplicity of the lyrics, for example, on the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash tune, "Speak Low," with a soft, introspective rendition. "Love is a spark, lost in the dark, too soon, too soon." Uptempo numbers were vigorous, with Tony shaking his groove thing quite delightfully as his musicians displayed their virtuosic chops on their frequent featured solos. (Sadly, there were NO program notes giving us their names and bios.) I've heard Porter's "I Got Rhythm" a million times, and I'm sure Bennett and company have played it a zillion. But they launched into the number with such gleeful abandon (and at such a breakneck tempo!) that it made me feel like I was hearing it for the first time.
With every song, Bennett connected with the crowd. Several times, he brought the house lights up at the end of a number so he could acknowledge the audience, and applaud back at his fans. Standing O's were frequent, but I've never seen a performer who responded to them quite the way he did. Not a glint of ego in his eye. Even after six decades of performing, he seemed genuinely filled with gratitude, joy and humility to be up on stage, doing what he loved. Maybe that's why so many contemporary artists have been hooking up with Bennett in recent years for duets and other projects. He sang a beautiful version of "For Once in My Life" last night, a song that had been a solo hit back in the late '60s for both him and Stevie Wonder. In 2006, their duo version won a Grammy.
One quiet number was the most moving for me. Just the guitarist accompanied Tony for most of Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight," a tender love song. Even in the large hall, across the sea of people, the words sailed straight to me: "Some day, when I'm awfully low/When the world is cold/I will feel a glow..." For the seniors in the crowd, these lyrics may have made them look back. But for me, a hopeless romantic in an era when romance seems truly dead and hopeless...well, Tony: Thanks for the private concert. And for the reminder to hope.