London Royal Albert Hall, July 3rd 2004
by Bernhard Vogel
„They just don’t build halls like this anymore today“, said Tony Bennett, in front of his audience at the spectacular setting of the Royal Albert Hall in London. He was reminiscing about his performance at the Victorian building’s centennial celebrations in 1971, when the hall’s interieur was refurbished in red, the way it still looks today. He then put aside his microphone and embarked on a fabulous unamplified guitar-duet rendition of „Fly Me To The Moon“, highlighting the spectacular acoustics of London’s most famous concert arena.
This number, however, also provided audible proof (as did the whole show) for the fact that Tony Bennett happens to be in excellent form for his present European tour that started last week with a few casino dates in Portugal and after several shows in England, Scotland and Ireland will lead him to continental Europe, including appearances at Jazz Festivals in Switzerland, Italy and the Netherlands. A few weeks short of his 77 th birthday, Bennett’s vocal strength is simply stunning, and it brought down the house in London last Thursday.
As with all truly great artists, there is no big fuss about his entrance but a simple announcement. „Ladies and Gentlemen, would you all please welcome Mr Tony Bennett“, to which the singer enters in an energetic way you wouldn’t necessarily expect from someone well beyond his first 50 years on stage. „Watch What Happens“ is is opener, and it becomes a theme for the evening as well, since watching his act today is indeed among the best live things that can happen to any music lover. Yes, recollecting my impressions from the night at the Albert Hall, I could as well say that maybe Tony never sounded better.
If there is a slight nervousness surrounding him for the first couple of minutes, it quickly becomes clear that his singing voice easily matches all demands you might have from a legend. The trademark closings, where Judy Garland might have influenced him, are all there and they work, as do his equally trademarked opening-arms „embraces“ of the audience. That’s because his vocal chords still seem to be fully at his improvising display, his swing on the uptempos such as „The Best Is Yet To Come“, „I Love A Piano“ or „I Got Rhythm“ remains grabbing, while the gestured mannerisms come across in such a natural way that you have to like them even if you might be not too fond of them in general.
Tony’s programme at the London show was extremely well-balanced, and how much he has gained, and is still able to gain, in his harvest years was best reflected by the mid-tempos and the slow ballads. In the first half of the show, „Who Can I Turn To?“ and especially „If I Ruled The World“ stood out in the ballad field – not that he ever sang these songs in an unserious way, but the seriousness by which he approaches, phrases and syncopates the lyrics today has deepened over the past few years, at least that was my impression. A most welcomed addition to his present programme, „But Beautiful“ by Jimmy van Heusen and Johnny Burke, amounted to the ballad highlight of the first part, intimately sung. And „All Of Me“ and „It Had To Be You“, both well-known songs especially for Sinatraphiles, sounded perfectly frank, done mid-tempo and hence perfectly melting, lyric-wise, with the accompaniment of impeccable quartet sounds.
The sidemen, of course, were featured by Tony in almost every number and got room for numerous solos.
John Oddo, the long-time pianist and concert conductor for the late Rosemary Clooney, is the latest addition, replacing Lee Musiker who had followed when the legendary Ralph Sharon bowed out last year. The present tour is Oddo’s first with Bennett, and while he was playing very well and was visibly both involved in and enthralled by the interaction, one could say that perhaps he was still a bit too reluctant to unfold all of his great talent. Yet it’s a real good bet the best is yet to come with more dates on the road.
The other three are long-standing well-known companions of a thousand and one nights with Bennett, and naturally, it shows. Paul Langosch’s bass is simply marvelous, Gray Sargent’s acrobatic guitar work is just outstanding and draws well-deserved cheers, and when Tony at one point called Clayton Cameron „the best Jazz drummer since Gene Krupa“ (maybe add Buddy Rich here), nobody in the Hall possibly had any objections: He’s „beyond“ by any means.
As the programme reflected Tony’s unique versality in tones and moods, Tony himself did his best in accentuating the broad variety of what makes the Great American Songbook. He reminded everyone of the unforgettable Judy Garland, „the greatest entertainer that ever lived“, by singing one of her trademark songs, „Who Cares“. He brought to our attention the often-overlooked fact that Charles Chaplin also was a brilliant composer, and made it audible through a heartfelt version of „Smile“. Irving Berlin, through „Let’s Face The Music and Dance“, and the Gershwins, through „They Can’t Take That Away From Me“, were also highlighted, as were Burton Lane and Yip Harburg with „Old Devil Moon“.
And then, the Ellington segment. Maybe more than ever before, and following the high standards of his 1999 studio album dedicated to „The Duke“, Bennett pays tribute to a genius musician who also was one of his best personal friends. „In A Mellow Tone“ and especially „Mood Indigo“, at the London performance, amounted to an especially irrestiably lesson in „classicals“. The ‚harvest factor‘ I mentioned earlier was so evident with these two selections, and Tony’s voice was so perfectly ‚indigo‘ that it had me all shivering. It was a moment when music history once more closed in at the Albert Hall. But still, „It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing“, kicking solos by all quartet members, and the „Big One“ for Clayton Cameron. Five Minutes of swirling drums that really take your shoes off. Cameron, by the way, already takes his shoes off at the beginning of the concert. He is playing in socks. (If you haven’t noticed this before, you can also see it on the recent Bennett DVD of the 2002 San Francisco concert).
Tony’s big hits were not to be missed, of course. „I Wanna Be Around“, which he recorded in 1959, is finished on a rousing high note. And the loneliness of Paris still is somehow sadly gay, and the glory that was Rome is for another day: „I Left My Heart In San Francisco“, the Bennett anthem, is presented in the middle of the act and earns him the expected standing ovation. „Let’s do a number for the MTV crowd“, he quips when having a little fun with Cameron’s drums before easing into „Steppin’Out“, not before having mentioned the great Fred Astaire who popularized the song. A few dancing steps by Tony to the beat are greeted by enthusiastic yellings from the Albert Hall crowd. Shades of swoon, 21 st century edition.
The closing number of the show might be called as predictable as it must be called grand.
„Frank Sinatra was my best friend“, says Tony Bennett, and recalls an incident when he had „slipped“ incognito into the audience at the Los Angeles Universal Amphitheatre to hear The Voice perform. Sinatra, however, turned out to be well informed, surprisingly presented Tony and told him „You should perform this song for all of us“. The story concerns Michel Legrand’s and Alan & Marilyn Bergman’s classic „How Do You Keep The Music Playing“, of which Sinatra performed a charming rendition in 1983/84 (also recording it for his 1984 album) while telling concert audiences everywhere that he believed the song belonged to Tony Bennett, his favourite singer.
The lights go down again for this number, Tony steps forward and almost conversationally raises the song’s title question. Another moment of total musical intimacy, while Bennett continues to stroll slowly around the stage, diving into one of his most beautiful songs in a mellow tone, no in-between vocal shots, just reflecting, Antonio Benedetto, philosopher Italian. Standing at the edge of the stage, one hand in his pocket, he states „And since we know we’re always changing/how can it be the same?“, shrugging is shoulders, looking down. It’s such a perfect resumee of the past 80 or so minutes, for himself as well as for the audience who has watched (and listened to) what happened. At the end of the final chorus, Bennett modulates the first syllable of „never“ up an octave, then going for the big close. Glorious. Applause. Ovations. The crowd was ready for another encore, but after three returns from backstage to further bows, it was over.
Evoking the sounds and spirits of Sinatra with this last song was more than a tribute to The Man he called his best friend – it somewhat closes a lot of circles. Sinatra held triumphant concert series at the Royal Albert Hall in the 70s and 80s (at one point, some of his fans considered a rally for renaming RAH into „Francis Albert Hall“). The last time Sinatra appeared there, in late May 1992, he was approaching 77, just as Tony is doing now. And The Voice carried with him all the edges and carves of well beyond 50 years in showbusiness and on concert stages, just as Tony is doing now. Sinatra, at the RAH in 1992, performed „This Is All I Ask“ so beautifully that it almost made me cry. „Let the music play as long as there’s a song to sing“. Now eleven years later, Tony adds, „the music never ends“.
It seems that singers at 76 tend to tell the truth.
Dropping out of the Albert Hall into a fairly warm Thursday‘s summer night in London and then into a nearby pub, it seemed about time to realize that Tony Bennett now carries the torch alone. Sinatra is gone, as are so many (too many) others, the likes of whose we won’t see again. Bennett is the last one of those original greats, and he bears the burden with incredible strength. But naturally, in the plain sense of the word, he won’t be there forever.
That‘s why Tony Bennett’s performance this night did much more than just remind us that indeed they don’t build places such as the Royal Albert Hall anymore today. It also reminded everyone that there are little to none singers of the kind left.
Go and catch him wherever and whenever you can. Don’t waiste your chance.
Today, they just don’t „build“ singers like Tony Bennett anymore.
„As for tomorrow: Turn the page“
(Frank Sinatra, „This Is All I Ask“ 1965)
AN EVENING WITH TONY BENNETT
July 3, 2003, London/England, The Royal Albert Hall (81 mins.)
John Oddo (piano), Gray Sargent (guitar), Paul Langosch (bass), Clayton Cameron (drums)
- Watch What Happens
- The Best Is Yet To Come
- Who Can I Turn To?
- I Love A Piano
- It Had To Be You
- All Of Me
- I Got Rhythm
- If I Ruled The World
- Who Cares
- But Beautiful
- I Wanna Be Around
- I Left My Heart In San Francisco
- Let’s Face The Music And Dance
- They Can’t Take That Away From Me
- Old Devil Moon
- In A Mellow Tone
- Mood Indigo
- It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing
- Fly Me To The Moon (w/o microphone)
- You Can Depend On Me
- How Do You Keep The Music Playing?