Has Tony Bennett ever played a bad show? It would be hard to find anyone who attended such a mediocre performance in the 50-plus years the man has been recording, let alone have it documented in print. Truthfully, it doesn't seem possible.
The 88-year-old legend came out dressed to the nines in a cream-colored jacket and a smile that never left his face. The joy and optimism he exuded was immediately contagious to the sold-out crowd inside Ikeda Theatre at Mesa Arts Center and was introduced by none other than his friend from across the Hudson River, Frank Sinatra.
At one point during the show, he tried and failed to explain why he had managed to stay relevant for so long, but seemed grateful for his unbelievable and enduring success. His formula for his performances are simple: recruit the best musicians to back up his dramatic vocals and cram the set list with the greatest songs from the American songbook. Why the standards? As Bennett himself put it, "The old songs are better to me than the new ones."
The opening number, "Watch What Happens" seemed appropriate as the audience observed a master at work. No move Bennett made was a wasted one, from where he placed his microphone to the expressive motions he made with his hands. He was able to convey simply the emotional depth that each song called for. He crossed his arms solemnly during his rendition of the Hank Williams cover "Cold Cold Heart." He triumphantly thumped his chest and stuck out his thumb because he picked a plum from the tree of life at the end of "The Best is Yet to Come."
His daughter Antonia, who put on a solid set of her own opening for her father, joined him for a duet of the Stephen Sondheim classic "Old Friends." Her dress shimmered and shone under the glow of the lights as she performed a little of the old soft shoe with her dad.
While some might be tempted to accuse Bennett of nepotism, his daughter exudes the same professionalism as her father if not quite the same vocal prowess. He gushed over the chops of his latest duet partner Lady Gaga, to whom he dedicated his rendition of "The Good Life." He announced their album would come out in September and jokingly explained it was because "she needed the money."
As his pianist played a bluesy riff on his Steinway, Bennett raised up his drink to him as he sang to the fictional bartender Joe during "One More For My Baby (and One More for the Road)." He amusedly shook his head as he realized that songs in a jukebox no longer cost a nickel as the audience laughed. His dignified take on "For Once In My Life" brought the house down. At one point he turned his head back as if he was speaking to Sorrow himself, telling him proudly he wasn't going to beat him.
The Saturday night audience then seemed to prepare for Sunday morning mass as they continued to sit down and then offer Bennett standing ovations as he brought it home with the Charlie Chaplin song "Smile" (for which, after releasing his cover of the song in 1966, the singer received a note sent from Switzerland by the film star himself thanking him for reviving the classic) and "Fly Me To The Moon," which he did without his microphone. A man from the audience screamed to Bennett, "We can stay all night!" When the lights went up, no one wanted to go home.
See next page for Critic's Notebook and set list
Watch What Happens They All Laughed Maybe This Time I Got Rhythm Cold Cold Heart Sing You Sinners Old Friends Steppin' Out With My Baby But Beautiful The Best Is Yet to Come The Way You Look Tonight Just in Time Boulevard of Broken Dreams The Good Life Once Upon a Time The Shadow of Your Smile One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) For Once in My Life I'm Old Fashioned I Left My Heart in San Francisco Who Cares? Smile When You're Smiling Fly Me to the Moon
Last Night: Tony Bennett at Ikeda Theater at Mesa Arts Center
Personal Bias: I did a piece on cliched wedding songs and "The Way You Look Tonight" was the top pick. Seeing him sing it in person made me want to take it back...almost.
I only knew Bennett from his revival in the 90's, but it became clear how much deeper my connection with him runs. My mom met him in Las Vegas for the MDA Telethon and my grandmother often sang his rendition of the songs he covers.
I also kept thinking of Alec Baldwin's take on him on Saturday Night Live. Baldwin really had him down, which proves how awesome Baldwin is as an actor and how consistent Bennett is as an artist.
The Crowd: Your grandparents.
Overheard: "There will never be anyone like him again."
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