She's 81 years old, dressed in a curve-hugging black velvet dress with a slit all the way from waist to foot, exposing the dress' red satin interior and the entire length of her shapely leg, which she extends luxuriously toward the people seated below her. Then she crouches down, opens her knees, and jumps back up again.
"Oh, my god. Eartha Kitt just dropped it like it was hot!"
My "sexy librarian" friend Stacks is literally lying down in her seat at Phoenix Symphony Hall, laughing and clapping. And Eartha Kitt is up on stage, literally grinding around like a GILF (grandmother I'd like to fuck). Cher may christen herself "the sexiest grandmother alive," but on the last Saturday in May, she's got nothing on the woman who played Catwoman on the Batman TV series in the '60s.
"When I was touring Japan for three or four months, I met an artist," Kitt tells the audience from the stage. "And this artist did translations of Rosemary Clooney songs, and Eartha Kitt songs. But no matter what song she was doing, it always sounded like this . . ."
Kitt then affects a high-pitched voice and rattles off some verses in lightning-fast gibberish, cracking up the audience. This is my first time seeing Kitt perform, and I'm thoroughly entertained. Her cabaret-style performance includes candid mid-song banter with the audience, renditions of her hits "C'est si bon," "I Want to Be Evil," and "Just an Old Fashioned Girl," and, of course, that leg she keeps showing.
Before I came to see Kitt perform with the Phoenix Symphony, I wasn't very familiar with her work. Of course I knew her as Catwoman, and I'd heard her biggest hit, "Santa Baby," many times before. But Stacks — who turned 30 this year, but has always had a love for classic, orchestral singers like Sinatra and Kitt — was the one who convinced me that Eartha Kitt was a can't-miss show.
And while I love a good rock show where I'm standing up in a club for hours on end, I was looking forward to actually sitting down in a seat and being entertained. It's not often that I have a clear view of the stage without squeezing myself through a cluster of sweaty, drunk men. This is my first time at Symphony Hall, and contrary to what I expected, there is no vibe of "stuffiness" here. I did "dress up" (beige pants, black button-down shirt, fedora), but the ambiance is more laid-back than I expected, and Stacks — who's rocking tight jeans and a white boutique shirt with buttons that keep popping open — fits in with the casual crowd better than I.
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The concert opened with the Phoenix Symphony performing a medley of Sinatra songs and Big Band standards, sans Kitt. Now, I've stood right in front of amplifiers at heavy metal shows, but I've gotta say that sitting in front of a 76-member orchestra while the brass blasts out at you beats all. When the ensemble performs Glenn Miller's "Pennsylvania 6-5000," waves of sound crash over me and pull me in completely. I'm used to my mind wandering when I'm watching rock shows, but tonight, I am completely surrounded by and enveloped in the ebb and flow of the strings, the booming backbone of the percussion, and the focused flight of the wind instruments. I wasn't thinking about which bar in the building might have the shortest line, or how the D-backs game down the street was going. I wasn't thinking about anything at all. I was listening and feeling, lost in a massive wall of sound.
Music hasn't pulled me in and consumed me like that in a long time. I am of the iPod Generation, one of the kids whose music-listening experience has been "personalized" since the Walkman. I have more than 8,000 songs on my iPod, and it's a very casual relationship — skip, skip, shuffle, skip. I am not obligated to listen to any song in its entirety; I am used to my music being expendable and peripheral. I drive to work to it, clean my house to it, and so much that I listen to is amplified and digitalized and processed and overdubbed that I often forget that the starting point is always real live people in a room playing instruments, and it is that primacy and immediacy, that human element and experience, which gives music its soul and keeps it compelling.
Once Eartha Kitt takes the stage, I see what Stacks was so excited about. The multilingual singer is half geriatric sex kitten, half comedienne, and pure energetic entertainer. One minute, her voice dips down into that low, bubbly tone for which she's known, and the next, it sails up into a bluesy wail. She tells myriad stories from the stage, including one in which she was trapped in a London hotel during a bombing ("It was one of those times where the Palestinians were on one side of the hotel, and the Israelis were on the other, and I happened to be right in the middle," she said), and that she never travels without her Tupperware.
After more than an hour onstage, Kitt takes a bow, returns for an encore ("Santa Baby"), and then leaves us again. The lights come on in Symphony Hall, and I feel a bit melancholy that the spell is broken and I'm being released back onto Adams Street. I really could have sat there for another several hours, just basking in the orchestral blasts and laughing at Eartha's wisecracks.