Twinkly doesn’t begin to do justice to Tony Bennett’s charm. The guy is sprinkled with the stardust of other eras. Bob Hope gave him his stage name; Charlie Chaplin sent him fan mail; together, the veteran crooner joked, he and Rosemary Clooney were “the first American Idols”. Just walking on to the boards of the London Palladium brought him a standing ovation. What a swell 85th birthday party this was.
The concert took not much more than an hour, but squeezed in 23 imperishable standards, including Bennett’s signature hits “Because of You”, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “The Good Life” – the latter dedicated to his new pal Lady Gaga. There was no mention, though, of Amy Winehouse, whose last recorded track features on his current album, Duets II, which recently made him the oldest living artist to top the US charts. Considered but unstuffy, the four-piece band – Lee Musiker on piano, Gray Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass and Harold Jones (“Count Basie’s favourite”) on drums – played supper-club jazz of the highest order, with a kindly sophistication that recalled the Nat King Cole Trio.
Bennett has described himself as a “singing actor”: casual and profound, his delivery turned songs such as “But Beautiful” and “Once Upon a Time” into soliloquies of romantic reflection. Vocally, the “big number” finales didn’t overawe his famously conversational style, here as warm and wise as a speech by the grandfather of the bride – sentimental in the purest, least cloying way. “They All Laughed” contained an actual chuckle and he spun gamely on his heels during a spruce “I Got Rhythm” and the jaunty swing of “Sing You Sinners”.
Cleo Laine, 83, joined him for “The Way You Look Tonight”, their phrasing aching with nuance. The contrast with Leona Lewis, duetting on “Who Can I Turn To”, was striking. As with most X Factor alumni, she seems to think that increasing the volume is all it takes to intensify the emotion.
The final ovation was partly for a storied age of songcraft, but mostly for a man who seems not to have a mean bone in his body. In the a cappella encore, “Fly Me to the Moon”, as Bennett’s still resilient tenor soared, it was possible to imagine him as Joe Bari, that singing waiter all that time ago – only now we were not hearing the aspiring kid, but the head chef, maître d’ and honoured guest rolled into one. The audience will be dining out on having seen this performance for a long while to come.