“There’s a difference between a concert and entertainment,” a man told me shortly before I took my seat for the Tony Bennett Show on Tuesday night. “I don’t like concerts, but Tony Bennett’s an entertainer.”
And the near full-house in Atwood Concert Hall was in a mood to be entertained. Belles were in their strapless dresses. Young men sported ties. Women of a certain age looked like they’d just stepped out of the beauty salon. And the guy next to me kept singing along with the tunes.
At a concert, that would have bothered me. But the all-ages throng was having a good time. We were all being entertained by a master.
Some allowance had to be made for the fact that Bennett will turn 87 this year. The natural rasp in his pipes — an attractive, attention getting edge that’s proven impossible to imitate — has grown more pronounced over time. He appeared to tire, understandably, at the end of an hour of giving his all without lagging.
But the jazzy/swing/cabaret style gives him a lot of flexibility that he uses to his advantage, delaying the start of a line, making audience members hold their breath and listen hard until he delivers the satisfying punch line. The important stuff — pitch, breath control at the key points and, above all, showmanship — still make for rewarding listening.
The 90-minute event, one of two shows in Anchorage, opened with Tony’s daughter Antonia Bennett singing a short set drawn from the venerable show tune repertoire in which her father excels: “Taking a Chance on Love,” “Embraceable You” and Noel Coward’s bittersweet “Sail Away.”
The crowd rose to its feet as the main attraction came on with “Watch What Happens” followed by a high energy “They All Laughed.”
Bennett took the crowd on a quick tour of the great American pop/art song. Most of the pieces dated from the first half of the last hundred years, the product of an era that Bennett himself has likened to the Renaissance in terms of fevered artistic creativity. Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” Irving Berlin’s “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” and a whole lot from the Gershwin brothers, including “I’ve Got Rhythm.”
He talked a bit about how he got his first break from Pearl Bailey and his stage name from Bob Hope and he complimented the air quality of Anchorage. But banter was at a minimum as he slipped from song to song with barely a pause to acknowledge applause with his trademark stance, arms spread wide, palms up, beaming with that famous smile.
Fans got to hear the hits: “Good Life,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “One For My Baby,” “The Best is Yet to Come” and, you bet, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
Women shouted “I love you, Tony!” A few men did, too.
The backup band consisted of a polished quartet of veteran pros led from the piano by Lee Musiker, who took a couple of particularly impressive solos in the course of the night. Guitarist Gray Sargent supplied tender solo accompaniment for a couple of ballads. Drummer Harold Jones, formerly with Count Basie, was worth the price of admission all by himself. Marshall Wood handled the standup bass.
The program finished with Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” then, as an encore, “When You’re Smiling,” in which Bennett tried to get the audience to sing along. That didn’t work, but it was our fault, not his. The custom of spontaneously singing in a group, once widespread, noisy and ebullient has faded and probably won’t return, sadly, until the next Renaissance.
A long ovation of whistles and clapping failed to draw him back onto the stage. As the audience went out into the midnight sun, bits and snatches of Gershwin, Berlin and Chaplin were hummed all around Town Square.
Clearly, we’d been entertained.
The Bennetts will present one more show at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets are available at centertix.net.
By MIKE DUNHAM