mon 24/06/2024

Tony Bennett, London Palladium | reviews, news & interviews

Tony Bennett, London Palladium

Tony Bennett, London Palladium

Frank Sinatra's musical heir demonstrates he still has what it takes

Tony Bennett: king of the old smoothies

Tony Bennett receives a standing ovation just for walking on stage. His band arrive first, then Bennett in loose black suit, white shirt, black tie (not bow), and red handkerchief in breast pocket. He saunters into a spotlight stage right. It’s enough. He laps it up. There’s a real sense of occasion. The worry is that, at 85, he will not be able to deliver, that his voice will be a feeble shadow of its former self.

His opening song, “Watch What Happens”, only exacerbates such thoughts as he talk-sings his way through it. Next, though, as he cracks into the Gershwin classic “They All Laughed”, he breaks out the voice, rich and recognisable, as well as a few natty dance moves. The applause rains down thick and heavy.

Tony Bennett has been around the block a few times. He has recorded with generations of musicians, from Percy Faith to the Dixie Chicks, Count Basie to Lady Gaga, the latter on his latest album Duets II. Quite apart from the music there’s much else to admire about Bennett. From taking part in the liberation of Landsberg Nazi concentration camp as a GI in 1945, to active involvement in the American civil rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties, he’s a lifelong supporter of democratic ideals (with both a small and large "d"). It was only a fortnight ago he caused a minor furore speaking out on Howard Stern’s radio show against US military involvement in Iraq, even going as far as to say of 9/11, “They flew the plane in, but we caused it.” Not the average spiel of an octogenarian jazz singer, but then Bennett knows that sticking to what you believe long enough pays off. It’s the story of his musical career.

Bennett slowly crashed and burned when rock culture peaked in the Sixties and Seventies but, sticking to his belief in the great American songbook, ie jazz, swing and show tunes, younger audiences eventually discovered him and his old fans came back. For me, he’s the guy who rescued Glastonbury 1998. The weather had been foul and Worthy Farm’s fields had taken on the Somme-like appearance that occasionally overcomes them. By Sunday afternoon, despite sturdy teeth-gritted British good cheer, we all dearly wanted something to push things up a notch. Tony Bennett turned out to be that something. Dressed immaculately – and mudlessly - in a white suit and emanating genuine charm and cheer, he swept the grubby, welly-booted crowd with ease into his joyful, finger-snapping musical universe.

Bennett’s band – piano, double bass, guitar and drums - have just the right balance of showy talent and deference

Age appears not to have withered him. He moves less, his voice is less supple, but he looks like a man 15 years younger than he is and retains an immense reserve of good nature. To remind us of his vintage he tells us that he and Rosemary Clooney were “the original American idols” and that Bob Hope gave him his stage name; he introduces his drummer, Harold Jones, as “Count Basie’s favourite drummer” and, after singing “Cold, Cold Heart”, relates how country legend Hank Williams, the song’s writer, rang him up and said, “What’s the idea of ruining my song?”

Bennett’s band – piano, double bass, guitar and drums - have just the right balance of showy talent and deference. Bennett plays off them in comfort, often with one hand louchely tucked in his trouser pocket. For “Just the Way You Look Tonight” Cleo Laine limps on stage. She wears a trouser suit and spangly silver top, and is assisted by a crutch. Her frizzy bob of black hair is very much intact. Their duet is more than just geriatric exotica; Laine's voice is in fine fettle and their gentle sparring resonates touchingly, the last stand of two old troupers. Then Bennett tackles a run of his hits: “Because of You”, “Just in Time”, “I Wanna be Around” -  he ends the latter with jazz hands and a bawdy belted “Oh, oh yeeeaah!” that are both pure Al Jolson, reminding us that Jolson was Bennett’s boyhood hero. Now that really is a while ago. “The Good Life” reaps a round of applause and Bennett’s now really in his stride, dancing about the stage for the funky instrumental break in “The Shadow of Your Smile”. He jazz-chats his way through his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, a number he could probably do in his sleep by now, and even convincingly delivers the lyrics to “The Best is Yet to Come”, quite a feat at 85.

His second and final guest of the evening is Leona Lewis for “Who Can I Turn To”. I have never had anything but derision for Lewis who strikes me as one of the least characterful people ever to have been involved in popular music, but when she walks on stage it’s impossible not to gasp. She is utterly, glowingly stunning, her hair in a Veronica Lake wave, her graceful frame ensconced in a blue sequinned dress with three-quarter length kimono sleeves. She towers over Bennett, looking every inch a Forties femme fatale, her mouth a blaze of red lipstick pout. She even avoids the awful vocal showboating that’s her stock in trade, acquitting her part of the song with controlled soulful power.

Just as Bennett’s about to start in on Charlie Chaplin’s schmaltz standard “Smile” the comedian Noel Fielding (of The Mighty Boosh) pipes up and yells something incomprehensible from a balcony box. This is a cue for a more audible heckler to yell to Bennett that “the trains stop running at midnight”. Bennett looks mildly bemused then moves swiftly on, running through the hackneyed ode to optimism “When You’re Smiling” before turning off all amplification for his finale, an unplugged take on “Fly Me to the Moon”, bringing home that we are in the London Palladium and witnessing the last of the original crooners having a moment. The house rises once again and the calls for an encore last a good while. He makes the gesture he’s been making all night between songs, both arms open wide, receiving our applause - but also as if he’d maybe like to give us a hug. Then, by 9.20pm, he’s gone, leaving a crowd buoyed by his gentlemanly, easy-going old-school charisma.

Watch the video for Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse performing "Body and Soul"

Age appears not to have withered him


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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