Review: Bennett wows with ‘old songs’
REVIEW BY JOHN BERGER / email@example.com
Tony Bennett was 67 when he connected with a new generation of fans-to-be on “MVT Unplugged” in 1994. Bennett had always performed with “unplugged” acoustic instruments and the format of the MTV show was a perfect fit for him.
Nineteen years later, performing full throttle at the age of 87, Bennett took “unplugged” to the ultimate last night, Sept. 23, at the Blaisdell Concert Hall when he sang “Fly Me To The Moon,” the final song of his 70-minute show, without using a microphone.
Pop, rock, country, jazz, hip-hop or Hawaiian — there aren’t many singers around these days who can perform effectively without a microphone. Bennett is one who can. He could be heard clearly and distinctly all the way back to Row Y, one row from the back of the house, where some members of the audience had watched much of the show through binoculars while others were recording large sections of it on their cell phones.
The experience brought to mind thoughts of Mick Jagger’s comment about seeing the Rutles in Che Stadium, and, of course, thoughts of Hawaii resident Jimmy Borges, only a few years younger than Bennett and still a world-class vocalist in his own right.
Bennett, a 17-time Grammy Award winner, lived up to expectations musically from start to finish. Large video screens on either side of the stage — the type used at Jo Dee Messina’s concert with Matt Catingub and Hawaii Pops Sept. 14 — would have allowed the fans in the back half of the concert hall to enjoy the visual subtleties of his performance, but Bennett’s marvelous voice and the instrumental magic of his superbly talented quartet could be fully enjoyed by everyone.
“Everyone” included a surprising diverse cross-section of Honolulu: multi-talented entertainer Melveen Leed and her husband, Mike Reyes; comedian Bo Irvine; celebrity dentist-to-the-stars Dr. Alvin Chung; Surf News Network’s Gary “GQ” Kewley; jazz drummer Darryl Pelligrini and his wife, choreographer Christine Yasunaga; T.J. “T.J. da D.J.” Johnson; island songwriter and recording artist Eddie Suzuki; man about town Terry Hubbard; and Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts board member Alan Yoshioka.
Bennett didn’t disappoint them. Always a suave and classy entertainer he was dressed for the occasion, his distinctive phrasing resonated vigorously through the concert hall. And, yes, even those too far from the stage to get the full visual experience without binoculars were brought into the action by the broader aspects of his performance. He waved, blew kisses, saluted, did just a bit of soft shoe, and accented a couple of numbers will well-timed turns.
Bennett accented the triumphant message of “They All Laughed” with gestures broad enough for everyone to see and enjoy. He ended several songs with his arms outstretched in a “V for Victory” pose that sums up his remarkable career to date. After more than 60 years as a recording artist — and more years than that as an entertainer — Bennett made it clear last night that he still has work to do.
He dedicated “The Good Life” to Lady Gaga and mentioned that he and Gaga are releasing an album in January.
“Buy it,” he told the crowd. “I need the money.”
Bennett’s gift for storytelling came to the fore when he introduced “Smile” with an account of his surprise at receiving a letter from the composer thanking him for resurrecting it — the composer was Charlie Chaplin.
He also interjected a touch of humor to “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).” The song, written in 1943, mentions putting “another nickel” in the jukebox. Bennett underscored the anachronism — “Nickel? Huh!” he exclaimed.
The song was one of many that showcased his superb musicians. Pianist Lee Musiker played a marvelous extended instrumental bridge on “One for My Baby” that underscored the song’s dark bluesy themes. Musiker also provided a big instrumental punch to Bennett’s dramatic rendition of “Maybe This Time.”
Drummer Harold Jones gave “I Got Rhythm” plenty of dramatic rhythm, acoustic bassist Marshall Wood stepped forward with authority on “Steppin’ Out,” and guitarist Gray Sargent was Bennett’s featured instrumental partner on an ultra-romantic treatment of “The Way You Look Tonight.” A rollicking arrangement of a Gershwin tune from the early 1930’s, “Who Cares?,” gave all four of them space to stretch out and go for it. If these guys weren’t working with Bennett they could be a headliner act in their own right.
Without exception the program consisted of vintage pop standards. Songs from the 1960’s represented the “new” end of the time continuum last night.
“I guess you can tell by now I just sing old songs,” Bennett said near the end of the show. Of course it was all those “old songs” that everyone was there to hear. As an unabashed fan said to me afterwards, “No one alive sings ‘em better than he does.”
Bennett also got a nice lift from his daughter, Antonia Bennett, his opening act, who came out to join him midway through the show. Their father-and-daughter duet was nicely done.
There was only one surprise in terms of the program last night, and it wasn’t “Cold Cold Heart.” Hank Williams Sr., may not be generally thought of as a contributor to the “Great American Songbook,” but Bennett recorded Williams’ #1 country chart hit as mainstream pop in 1951 — 62 years ago.
Bennett went back even deeper into his discography with “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” a song he recorded as a demo in 1950.
The surprise was that he didn’t do “I Wanna Be Around.” The song was certainly one of Bennett’s most memorable releases of the ‘60s, but, realistically, every song that he did do last night was somebody’s favorite song.
Except for the fact that he closed the show sans microphone, the musical highlight of the evening was, of course, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Tony Bennett has been singing that song for 50 years and he put his heart and soul into every word and every note singing it for Hawaii last night.
John Berger has been a mainstay in the local entertainment scene for more than 40 years. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.