Watching Tony Bennett perform is like watching Usain Bolt run.
The effortlessness and the beauty are so impressive that it’s only afterward that you realize all the training and discipline that went into it. It’s hard work making it all look so easy.
Bennett’s show at Radio City Music Hall last night was sleek and streamlined – barely over an hour, but with only a handful of pauses. He hardly waited a beat between the standout performance of the first song he ever recorded, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and one of his signatures, “The Good Life,” which he dedicated to Lady Gaga, who he collaborated with on a jazz album set for a January release.
That’s not to say the show felt rushed, as each song was given its due. It’s just that after Bennett took his final bows, you’re left with the feeling of “What just happened?”
Bennett, now 87, clearly takes pride in continuing to keep his voice in peak form, not to mention his manners and graciousness. While singers half his age – a third of his age, even – would be changing arrangements to lower notes a half-step here and there to make hitting them more comfortable, Bennett often seeks to make the arrangements as difficult as he can for himself as a challenge. It’s stunning to hear him hit the same notes in “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” with as much power today as he did at his Las Vegas concerts nearly 50 years ago, which were collected on the “Live at the Sahara: Las Vegas, 1964” album released Tuesday.
Similarly, he handled “That Old Black Magic” as well as he did when he performed for President John F. Kennedy in 1962, shows collected for “Bennett & Brubeck: The White House Sessions, Live 1962,” released this spring.
Bennett also continues to innovate. His version of “Maybe This Time” was masterfully constructed, starting with an extra-slow launch before building to an inspiring conclusion. He also placed the Gershwins’ “Who Cares?” from 1932 into a new context, pointing out how it applied to life today with lyrics like “Let it rain and thunder, let a million firms go under/I am not concerned with stocks and bonds that I've been burned with/I love you and you love me and that's how it will always be.”
Given his track record, it’s hard not to believe him. Bennett is a true musical rarity, not only someone who has gotten better with age, but who continues to sound better in concert than on record. It’s a thrill to see such a master at work, even if he insists on making it look so darn easy.
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SETLIST: I Love You / They All Laughed / Maybe This Time / I Got Rhythm / Cold, Cold Heart / Sing, You Sinners / Old Friends (w/Antonia Bennett) / Steppin’ Out / But Beautiful / 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 / That Old Black Magic / I Left My Heart in San Francisco / Who Cares? / Smile / When You’re Smiling