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With a dash of Broadway chutzpah, Tony Bennett’s tour is named “The Best Is Yet to Come”. That’s some boast for an 80-year-old relic of pop music’s prehistory, one of the last links with a pre-Presley age of screaming bobbysoxers and Brylcreemed teen idols in sharp suits. Frank Sinatra, not a man to mince words, said he was “the best singer in the business”.
You could call him a dinosaur, except there wasn’t anything dinosaur-like about the dapper gent on stage with a lustrous head of grey hair and a broad smile, red handkerchief peeping out from the breast pocket of his dark suit. Homo croonerus, perhaps.
Bennett’s career went through a long dip in the 1960s when the rise of bands such as The Beatles threatened to make crooners such as him
extinct. But he was rediscovered in the mid-1990s when a vogue for lounge music and Rat Pack fashion took hold as a backlash to grunge rock. He’s still going strong more than a decade later: last year’s
album Duets, a collection of collaborations with pop stars such as George Michael and Stevie Wonder, was a top-three hit in the US and won him a brace of Grammy awards.
His stage show betrayed no concession to younger fans. There was no irony; unlike Tom Jones, he didn’t send himself up. The lesson of Tony Sings the Hits of Today!, a disastrous 1970 album whose cover depicted him lounging uncomfortably in flares and a psychedelic green tie, has been learnt. Bennett is careful not to stray far from the great American songbook.
Opening with a gently swinging, Sinatra-esque number, “Watch What Happens”, his initial singing style was low-key, almost conversational. It grew in vigour, though he conserved his vocal energy shrewdly. An uncharacteristically self-pitying lyric – “Everybody loves a winner, but nobody loves me” – was delivered softly, with Bennett’s voice letting rip a few beats later for the song’s uplifting conclusion: “It’s got to happen! Maybe this time I’ll win!”
Optimism and innocence were the hallmarks of his set. This was pop without double meanings or knowing winks. When he sang “You’ve got me flying high on a magic carpet ride”, you knew this was no “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”-style trip. Only a very smutty mind could have intuited sexual innuendo in the line “When she straightens your tie, it means she loves you”. In Tony Bennett’s world, a straightened tie is a straightened tie.
He interpreted songs by Liza Minnelli, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill and his old friend Sinatra. There was the odd excursion into different genres, such as his cover of Hank Williams’ country song “Cold, Cold Heart” and a Motown number “For Once in My Life”, though his backing band gave them the same jazzy tempo.
His relaxed singing and the music’s easy good mood took us back to some sunny, 1950s American idyll: “It’s the good life to be free and explore the unknown,” as he crooned in “The Good Life”. But there was a hovering sense of mortality, too. “Everything’s OK, I’ve lived day by day/With this mellow song, I can’t go wrong,” he sang, outlining a crooner’s guide to life. The next song reinforced it: “Life don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing.”
Performing “Fly Me to the Moon” with his microphone switched off, his voice sounded small and far away in the immense auditorium. It was a fragile yet velvety moment, not so much raging against the dying of the light as serenading it. If you set King Lear in Palm Beach, then Tony Bennett would be the soundtrack. As he sang in the final song of the night, his voice ending on a spine-tingling, forceful note: “With any luck, the music never ends!”
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