08 October 2009
Ladies and Gentlemen, Tony Bennett
(edit: I substituted the original image that was here with one taken from the actual performance we attended, courtesy of Victoria Times-Colonist photographyer Bruce Stotesbury)
My charmed life has been rearing its charming head a lot of late, and the capper has got to have been winning tickets to see Tony Bennett perform live at the Royal Theatre here in Victoria last night. As a former DJ myself I have given away hundreds if not a thousand such passes myself, but I don’t recall ever actually winning radio station tickets before. The station, an AM world music out of Camosun College called Village 900 (you can listen to them on the internet from that link) not only got us in, but got us extremely good seats: five rows back, right in the middle.
I have always liked the “Italian crooning” style of singing that was so popular in the 1950s; I wouldn’t call myself a “fan” of Tony Bennett in the traditional sense but I was very aware of his career and the songs he made famous, and admired him more and more as he continued to maintain a public presence long after his “heyday” of charting activity, even staging a very impressive comeback in the early 90s with an appearance on “MTV Unplugged” that my friend Liz and I found extremely impressive and romantic.
Bennett’s style is reminiscent of other “Mafia favourites” like Dean Martin, Jerry Vale, Frankie Laine, Al Martino, Vic Damone et al, along with of course the Chairman, Frank Sinatra, and even at 83, Bennett still has pretty good pipes, particularly for belting. I found myself thinking repeatedly that had he done operatic training he’d have been just as big a star as he became anyway.
You pretty much know what you’re going to get going to such a concert, but it’s very interesting anyway, particularly at Bennett’s age (83). He worked without a lyric cheat sheet, which I found impressive; keep in mind that most of his songs are barely three minutes long, meaning he has time to do about 25 of them in a 90 minute show. His voice was pretty good, though his sotto voce has definitely got rust spots on it, and of course by now he knows how to work the mic. His particular manner is still highly charming and his in-between-song stories are short but funny. He makes sure the band members are spotlighted (repeatedly, in fact) and can still bounce around the stage pretty spryly, showing off his genuine love for the playing and style of music. If he’s actually sick of singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” he keeps it well hidden. He even did a number without the mic, something I’ve very rarely seen vocalists do -- and this was near the end of the show!
The Royal Theatre is not the most beautiful of its ilk of concert hall (built in 1913, it's only slightly older than Bennett is!), but the acoustics were pretty good and its still a good solid example of a just-post-Victorian classic theatre. Thus it was doubly jarring that some in the audience chose to ignore the rules and take pictures (with flash) or record cell-phone video early on (they were quickly identified and shamed by ushers). Indeed, I too wanted a picture or a bit of video, as this is very likely the last time Bennett will get out this way, and the show had some feel of a historic event rather than just a concert, but I refrained until the show was over (and discovered the iPhone is spectacularly bad at getting any decent video/images of a stage show!).
Bennett is more than just a singer my parents liked or a performer who’s had a remarkable run -- for me, he’s also a link to the past, a world so very different from the way it is now, a New York City-centred universe where Dino and his Rat Pack compadres were living large in Vegas, Jewish comedians ruled the Catskills and Woody Allen was busy being Broadway Danny Rose. Sure, the standards Bennett sings still resonate with his aging followers -- but every so often he transcends all that and recreates those days and the world which made him. Not bad for a poor kid from Astoria.