LIVE: Tony Bennett @ the Palace Theatre, 10/18/15
Review by Steven Stock
Over an hour into his triumphant appearance at Albany’s Palace Theatre on a recent Sunday evening, Tony Bennett didn’t really have much left to prove. The 89-year-old crooner had sailed through nearly two dozen songs and already garnered three standing ovations. So, with an impish smile creasing his face, Bennett put his mic down on the grand piano and proceeded to belt out “Fly Me to the Moon,” his unamplified voice filling the cavernous theater with ease. It was a thrilling end to a strong performance, and Bennett knew it. His stellar band waited expectantly onstage as the crowd roared its approval, but Bennett was already headed backstage with daughter Antonia on his arm, leaving us wanting more.
Accompanying a singer is an art form in itself (arguably an underappreciated one), and Bennett’s quartet was marvelous. Pianist Mike Renzi, guitarist Gray Sargent and bassist Marshall Wood all played key roles breathing new life into old warhorses such as “I Got Rhythm” and “The Shadow of Your Smile,” but my attention kept straying to drummer Harold Jones, whose sure touch and crafty timekeeping helped propel the somewhat understated arrangements. A lifetime spent backing luminaries such as Count Basie, Hoagy Carmichael, Natalie Cole, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams has earned Jones the sobriquet “The Singer’s Drummer” – thereby also providing the title for Gil Jacobs’ recently published biography.
Of course Bennett was the main attraction, and he didn’t disappoint…
Obviously it’s a different voice than that of the operatic choirboy who recorded in the ’50s. He’s lost some range on the high end, but Bennett has also learned a thing or two over the past 60 years. One of the most striking aspects of his performance was not how he’s defied aging and the prospect of mortality, but rather how he embraces it, often using the well-weathered patina of his current voice to the songs’ advantage, most notably on “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” Bennett’s phrasing was impeccable, and like Sinatra, he’s mastered a sort of conversational, seemingly off-hand delivery that’s utterly believable. He can still sustain a note for a long time as well, although perhaps too many of the songs ended with this crowd-pleasing device.
Bennett didn’t spend much time chatting, but he did pause long enough to express his affection for Sinatra before a reverent version of “One for My Baby.” Other highlights included the decidedly irreverent “Sing You Sinners,” a gorgeous rendition of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (“the first song I ever recorded,” noted Bennett) and a song composed by legendary filmmaker Charlie Chaplin, “Smile.” Much of the material Bennett originally recorded in the ’50s with strings sounded far more enticing in these new, stripped-down arrangements.
Bennett doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. The current tour serves to promote his recent album collaboration with jazz pianist Bill Charlap, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern, and plans call for Bennett and Lady Gaga to return to the studio and record a follow-up to their double-platinum debut album of duets. Judging by his showing at the Palace, it looks as though Bennett has about 20 productive years left before he eases into well-deserved retirement.