in performance: tony bennett

Tony Bennett

“I guess you can tell by now that I only sing old songs,” Tony Bennett said the close of a typically charming performance last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. “That’s because I don’t like any of the new ones.”

If one didn’t know the singer’s work or his masterfully conversational way of interpreting a standard, such a remark might be interpreted as the confession of a curmudgeon. But if any performance attribute outweighs his scholarly command of the Great American Songbook, it’s his onstage attitude. As the 75-minute performance again underscored, Bennett’s class act status comes from an unassuming love of the stage, his music and his audience.

In short, the crowd had a ball soaking in the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne and others. From all outward appearances, though, Bennett seemed to be having an even better time. And at age 86, to retain that level of joy, freshness and integrity and have it come across as thoroughly honest is a wonder indeed.

The reasons, as is always the case with Bennett’s shows, are twofold. Last night, he remained, at heart, a jazz singer. He propelled the limber They All Laughed and especially I Got Rhythm with subtle but playful swing. Later, he scattered merrily over clapping audience accompaniment during a wonderfully frisky Sing, You Sinners.

The jazz mood also permeated material that wasn’t jazz at all, as shown by the light-hearted sentiments that Bennett injected into one of the most devastating country heartbreak songs of all time, Hank Williams’ Cold, Cold Heart.

All of that led into the second big reason for Bennett’s timeless appeal: his phrasing as a vocalist. Calling Bennett a crooner oversimplifies his talent. Last night, he was more of a conversationalist. The classics The Good Life, But Beautiful and, yes, I Left My Heart in San Francisco were studies in vocal cool that allowed story lines to unfold like quiet confessionals that were as eloquent as they were emotive.

But Bennett could roar when necessary. He did just that during the Cabaret favorite Maybe This Time, with a blast of vocal drama  proving that, for all his endearing performance cheer and reserve, Bennett can conjure a mighty storm when his music demands one.

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