Tony Bennett: Still Living The Good Life
Review by Asantha Jayaweera
“Chap. I say Chap!”
An impossibly posh voice seems to be addressing me from my left. “Chap! What did you think of the concert?”
Is he talking to me? I spent most of my time at public school trying to avoid these kind of idiot toffs that call everyone ‘chap’, and now one is accosting me.
“Errrrr good?” I venture tentatively. The question in itself is not difficult to answer. It is complicated by the fact that at this point in the evening we are both holding our genitals and standing at urinals (so, very much like public school then).
“What an artist! What a show!” He enthuses.
“Yes” I agree. “It was pretty much one for the ages”.
My reticence to engage is less to do with the quality of the gig (which was excellent in case you were wondering) and more to do with the fact that this man has seen fit to break (what in my mind) is the ONLY absolute of The Lad Code – Do not speak to another man mid-stream.
Tony Bennett has so overwhelmed my toilet-acquaintance, he has seen fit to violate this most sacred of unsaid understandings between…..well, chaps. This is the power of the music of Tony.
Describing Tony Bennett is rather like describing an exquisite (and expensive) Single Malt. Elegant, classic, sophisticated, golden sun-dappled in colour with a strong oaken nose and sweetly unctious tones, an easiness that keeps you wanting more, but fills you with an overwhelming desire to savour every moment as you’re not sure when you’ll get to experience it again. And it only improves with age. 88 yrs young to be exact.
The crowd at The Roundhouse are parched and eager to drink their fill. His warm up act is the immensely talented and sultry Imelda May, whose country-tinged brand of Jump Blues and Rockabilly is well-received by the floor. She stalks the stage in a tiger-print dress and the up-tempo numbers pumped out by her excellent Big-Band transport you back into a Swing club in 1930s or 40s Havana. On any other night, I would have been delighted to see her alone perform but given who the top billing is, the audience are under no illusions as to who they truly are here to see. They wait greedily for the great man to sate their thirst.
A single Grand Piano is brought out into centre-stage. You sense that there is no need for any extraneous razzmatazz. A guitar, a drum kit and a Double Bass follow, that is all. No pyrotechnics, no light-show, and a single spotlight. The minimum required to support Mr Bennett.
The set opens with a recording of an interview with Sinatra, “For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business”. And if he’s good enough for Frank, he’s good enough for us.
Tony sidles and dances out to applause, wearing an immaculate cream linen jacket. He opens with ‘Watch What Happens’ and introduces us to his rather excellent and experienced band (for example, drummer Howard Jones was both Count Basie’s and Natalie Cole’s preferred beat-keeper). Like Tony, they haven’t missed a step over the years.
We move briskly through a jovial ‘Who’s Got The Last Laugh Now’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’ before a languid ‘Maybe This Time’ cover from Cabaret. “He is more fabulous than Liza” I hear the lady sitting next to me say to her friend. Yes, yes he is.
There is no let up as the hits just keep on coming. ‘Stepping Out (with my baby)’, ‘The best is yet to come’ and ‘The way you look tonight’. He has the audience in the palm of his hand. I’d say he is running at about 95% of the Tony Bennett in his prime, but that is still at least 50% better than most artists performing live today. He sounds EXACTLY the same as he does on his records, and has done for the last 60yrs.
Where he is exceptionally strong is as a showman (but in an understated manner, not flashy at all), in the interludes between songs, where he shares some brief anecdotes and observations about his songs and life. I could listen to him talk all day.
Next is the first song he ever recorded (in 1950) ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ and then one of his signature tunes, ‘The Good Life’. He tells us he has recently recorded this with Lady GaGa (they’re releasing an album together later this month) and jokes that we should buy the record as “She could do with the money”.
Time for more hits; the softly latin ‘The shadow of your smile’, ‘One more for the road’ (whilst drinking Scotch – could he be any cooler?), a powerful rendition of ‘For once in my life’, and a wistful ‘Smile’ (mentioning that Charlie Chaplin wrote him a letter thanking him for resurrecting his song).
We are into the final stretch now with his true signature ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’. There are audible gasps of delight when he begins. I honestly never thought that I would ever get to see a true legend plying his trade, and yet here I am watching Tony Bennett sing his way through Jazz Standards. It feels like a Jazz club in Harlem or possibly a Vegas theatre, not a leafy trendy part of North London.
He closes the show with ‘The whole world smiles with you’ and proving that it is his Bel Canto style of singing that has preserved his voice so long in this industry, does an amazing (ENTIRELY ACAPELLA) version of ‘Fly Me To The Moon’. There is no encore. There is no need. The great man has said and sung all that he needed to.
When people ask the question “What do you think God sounds like?”, most trot out the usual platitudes; Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Morgan Freeman,even Alanis Morrisette (that’s a Jay and Silent Bob reference for all you Kevin Smith fans out there). But even though I don’t believe, I prefer to think he might sound like Tony Bennett. And I definitely believe in him.
Perhaps the Almighty listens to the Great American Songbook in the sky, and on the strength of tonight’s gig he is delaying prepping that jazz club in Heaven a little longer. Thank God for the classics. Thank Tony Bennett for the memories.