I’ve been a fan of Tony Bennett as long as I can remember. My mom had his Live at Carnegie Hall 1962 concert, a two-album set, and I listened to it a lot when I was a kid. I was thrilled when he had his career resurgence in the 90s, especially because he still sounded so good and hadn’t sold out at all - - he was doing the same thing he’d been doing for the previous 30-40 years, it’s just that now people were aware of (or reminded of) how great he is.
As big of a fan as I was, I never saw him live. A couple years ago he did a concert at the American Songbook series, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and I thought about going to that, but I was worried the moment had passed for Tony - - it might be a little too late to see him, he might not be singing as well anymore. But then this summer I heard that he was doing a concert at the Metropolitan Opera on 9/19/11, and how could I miss that.
I’m telling you, it was spectacular. He sounds fantastic, and is such a divine artist. I got to the Met and saw in the program that he had three special guests: a Spanish singer I’d never heard of named Alejandro Sanz, and Aretha Franklin, and Elton John! Lordy lordy! The audience was all a-stir. It was clear that this wasn’t your typical Met audience - - there were plenty of alte kachers there, but not the alte kachers you see at the opera. Also quite a few people in their 40s. Didn’t see anyone under 40.
We all sat down, the chandeliers went up (a gasp and a hand from the crowd, further proof that these are not seasoned Met-goers), and the house lights went down. Tony’s quartet came out onstage and there was some light applause for them. Silence. And then a disembodied amplified voice said, “Ladies and gentlemen, President Bill Clinton.” And just like on *West Wing*, everyone rose to their feet! He introduced Tony in a very warm and classy way.
And then Tony came out. He’s 85 (this was a birthday concert), and he looks great. And as I said, he sounds spectacular - - and from what I could tell, he’s still singing these songs in the keys he sang them in 50 years ago, and never shying away from a high note. Lots of high G’s, and a few notes above that.
He opened with “Watch what happens”, which is a song I adore. In the second or third song he introduced his combo: Lee Musiker on piano, Gray Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass, and Harold Jones on drums, who he said was Count Basie’s favorite drummer.
Of course for weeks I’d been thinking of what songs he would sing, and was hoping he’d do “When Joanna loved me”, a heart-breaking ballad that turns me into a sobbing mess. He didn’t do that, but he did a song I wouldn’t have expected him to do - - “Maybe this time”, from *Cabaret*. They did something interesting with that song: he sang it as a slow ballad, making the most of the words and the emotional content. It had a quiet finish, and we applauded. Then the pianist went right into a solo piano arrangement of the song in a fabulous virtuosic Chopin style. This guy has real chops, he played with verve and clarity and grandeur. We went crazy for that, and then they went right into Tony picking up the song from the middle and gave it a big finish. The whole sequence was thrilling, and pointed out how much craft goes into putting together a program like this, and how thoughtfully they work to keep these songs fresh for Tony, and for the audience.
The duets with Aretha, Alejandro, and Elton were there to advertise his *Duets II* album that comes out on 9/20/11. I thought it was a little commercial to do that, but hey, it’s his night, he can do what he wants with it. It’s not like he’s pitching The Garden Weasel. Aretha looked lovely, was wearing a green and gold long dress and a lovely brown wig. She and Tony sang “How do you keep the music playing?”, and it was very touching, these two legends singing a love song to each other. She did some Sarah Vaughan-esque noodling, which I found amusing.
I’d never heard of Alejandro Sanz before. He’s very nice looking, but I didn’t think much of his singing. A little too breathy and self-involved. It was a treat to see and hear Elton, and his voice is very clear and strong, but his vibrato is getting wobbly. This is what I call Audience Participation, where you hear what he’s singing and you have to imagine the actual pitch.
I’ve listed the songs he did below, at least the ones I remember. They’re in a general start to finish order. I’ll go into detail about a few of the songs:
“I wanna be around”
I didn’t know that Johnny Mercer wrote this song for Tony! Truth be known, I prefer Eydie Gormé’s recording, but Tony really delivers the goods.
“The shadow of your smile”
He started this song with just the guitar, as a quiet ballad. Then the rest of the combo came in and it was a groovy sort of samba beat. They took an instrumental break and Tony danced around. This dude can move. He reminded me just a smidge of James Brown.
Tony didn’t do that much talking, didn’t tell hardly any stories at all. And I was a little surprised that he never made any mention of being on the stage of the Met. I can’t decide whether this is showing MORE reverence to the venue or LESS. Anyway, one story he told was before he sang “Smile”. He said that he recorded this song in the 70s, when rock and disco were all over the charts. He had a single that did really well in the midst of all of that, an old song that people hadn’t thought much about lately, and he was very touched to get a letter of thanks from the man who wrote the song. The letter was from Switzerland and it was signed Charles Chaplin.
“Because of you”
“I left my heart in San Francisco”
These are Tony’s first big hit and his biggest hit/signature song. I’m sure he feels an obligation to sing them, but it was nice that there wasn’t a big deal made about them. They were just two songs among many. “Because of you” had a sexy beat, it’s no longer a gauzy ballad.
“Just in time”
“For once in my life”
These songs had me tearing up big time, because they made me think of Richard. “Just in time” simply because it’s about finding love just in time, and “For once in my life” because Richard sang it to me (along with Frank Sinatra) at a wedding we were at years ago, sang it just to me at our table. I know I’ve always been a softie, but this whole finding-love-later-in-life thing really does a number on me.
“Fly me to the moon”
This is the song he did last. He sang it with just the guitar, and with no amplification for himself (the guitar was amplified). Astonishing. The audience went wild, he bowed. He went over to the pianist, shook his hand, made him take a bow. He motioned to the guitarist, the bassist, the drummer. He bowed some more. He went offstage, came back and bowed, maybe did that twice. We were all on our feet and cheering our heads off, expecting an encore. And he didn’t do one! He was finished, and I honor that!
I was expecting to be a weepy, wailing wreck through the whole show, and I was for the first three songs and a few specific songs after them. But for the rest of the concert I was just sitting back and enjoying it. He has a way of putting you at ease. More than that, the word that comes to mind is respect. The whole concert was permeated with respect: his respect for his voice, for his colleagues, for the audience, and for the songs he was singing.
Watch what happens
I got rhythm
Maybe this time
The shadow of your smile
How do you keep the music playing (with Aretha)
Yesterday I heard the rain (with Alejandro)
If I ruled the world (with Elton)
Sing you sinners
The good life
When you’re smiling
I left my heart in San Francisco
Because of you
Just in time
For once in my life
The way you look tonight
Fly me to the moon
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