He's the reigning king of the crooners, he’s loved by old timers and hipsters alike and he’s got Lady Gaga on speed dial. You wish you could be as cool as Tony Bennett who, at 86, still possesses a strong, expressive voice and effortless charm, both on display Saturday night as the 17-time Grammy winner headlined a benefit for Broadway Center at the Pantages Theater.
Backed by a stellar four-piece band that included Lee Musiker on piano, Marshall Wood on upright bass, Harold James on drums and Gray Sargent on guitar, Bennett kept a near capacity crowd spellbound with big hits from his six decades in show business, from the melancholy “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” to the dreamy, nostalgic “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
Many of the songs were standards, selections from the Great American Songbook that we’ve heard countless times - in movies, as Muzak. But what seemed remarkable was the amount of soul Bennett could pour into such familiar material; songs he’d sung maybe thousands of times were delivered with an earnestness that was quite moving at times, and not a moment of Saturday’s performance felt cynical or contrived.
Especially affecting were Bennett’s delivery of Lee Adams’ and Charles’ Strouse’s tale of lost love, “Once Upon a Time,” and the disarmingly optimistic one-two punch of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and “When You’re Smiling” towards the end of the set. As if those weren’t piercing enough, the iconic singer continued his tradition of performing one of his songs without amplification. He lowered his mic and finished with “Fly Me to the Moon,” accompanied by Sargent’s elegant strumming.
“Shall I keep going?” the singer had inquired a couple of times earlier, the crowd erupting in enthusiastic affirmation each time. Had he asked again, there was no way fans would have let him walk off after a performance like that. But then again, how would he top it?
Between songs, Bennett told stories from his early days. He joked that he and Rosemary Clooney were “the original ‘American Idols,’” having been discovered on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” radio show. And he recalled how comedian Bob Hope had bestowed him with his stage name after deeming his real one, Anthony Dominick Benedetto, too long for the marquee.
Oh, and about the Lady Gaga connection. He dedicated “The Good Life” to Mama Monster, who he’s recording an entire album with following their collaboration on “The Lady Is a Tramp” for his chart-topping “Duets II” album from 2011. “She’s a beautiful singer,” he said. “I can’t wait to do it.”