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Tony Bennett at Birmingham Symphony Hall

David Burke By

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Tony Bennett
Birmingham Symphony Hall
Birmingham, UK
July 3, 2017

The ghost of Frank Sinatra crackled over the PA, introducing Tony Bennett as "the greatest singer in the world." He was, The Voice declared, "gonna tear the place up"—a boast that seemed hardly credible as the dapper nonagenarian shuffled on stage for what was surely his adieu to Birmingham. But a boast that Bennett did his damndest to affirm in the following 90-plus minutes of a set that was a virtual compendium of 20th Century song. Of course the vagaries of age have exerted their toll one of the last icons of the jazz. His movement is more circumspect, his vocal delivery less dynamic (though still compelling) and memory sometimes a blur. After a sprightly "I'm Old Fashioned," he segued into the prelude of "It Amazes Me" only to forget the words. A heartbreaking moment was tempered by Bennett's self-deprecation. Our faces wet with tears, we willed him on—and on he went, to reprise "I'm Old Fashioned" as if performing it for the first time, all of us cheering the second climax even louder.

Bennett's spirit remains indomitable, and it was this indomitable spirit, in concert with a consummate professionalism and an almost clairvoyant compatibility with his excellent quartet comprising the redoubtable Billy Stritch on piano, the subtle shadings of Gray Sargent on guitar and a rhythm section of Marshall Travis Wood (bass) and former Count Basie drummer Harold Jones, that navigated him through an emotionally-charged evening. Emotions were particularly charged on the big ballads, Duke Ellington's "(In My) Solitude," Michel Legrand's "How Do You Keep the Music Playing," the Al Dublin/Harry Warren two-hander "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and Jimmy Van Heusen's "But Beautiful," each rendition emphasising the poignancy of an occasion unlikely to be repeated.

For this was arguably Bennett's adieu to the Symphony Hall, a venue he declared to be among the finest anywhere—and a venue fortunate to have been graced with his mercurial presence no fewer than ten times over the years (a milestone marked by what appeared to be an extemporaneous presentation before he disappeared into the night). The final flourish included a swinging "The Shadow of Your Smile," a vibrant "For Once in My Life" and his signature "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." There was a truncated "Fly Me to the Moon," the pathos-soaked slower tempo of Bennett's version every bit the equal of Sinatra's brash take, as Bennett relinquished his mic and sang to the heavens. And then he was gone. Yet his aura endured, as his legend will endure. Forever.
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