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Tony Bennett: Philadelphia, PA, November 4, 2011

Lewis J Whittington By
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Tony Bennett
Academy of Music
Philadelphia, PA
November 4, 2011

Tony Bennett plugged his upcoming appearance on Lady Gaga's Thanksgiving Special in the middle of singing "The Good Life," to the packed house at the Academy of Music, who may or may not know that she's the biggest act around; but, to this crowd, at age 85, Bennett was the hottest ticket in town. The love for him just gushed through the concert hall and Bennett gave it back with a full, if vocally erratic, 90-minute set. He proved that he still had a lot to give musically, interpretively and personally.

Bennett new Duets II (Columbia, 2011)—with a number of current stars including the late Amy Winehouse—is his hit formula to keep current, even though he can sound shaky when he does TV appearances to promote them. Hearing his full concert gives clues; he seems to take awhile to get to vocal warmth, for instance, and orchestrating a real set with the band.

The legendary singer basically had everybody eating out of his hand instantly. Looking dapper in a black suit, navy tie, red handkerchief and signature sparkling eyes, he worked into a genuine groove with his stellar band—pianist and musical director Lee Musiker, guitarist Gray Sargent, drummer Harold Jones ({Count Basie}}'s favorite, Bennett said) and sonorous bassist Marshal Wood.

Bennett went through favorites from The Great American Songbook and a sprinkling of his own hits—sometimes doing just a "money shot" verse or two, and better with the up-tempo tunes. Bennett's voice can now be erratic, but is indelibly inside the music; he continually went for the higher notes and some perilous phrasing, dropping punctuation right in the pocket, especially in the warmth of his lower tones.

He was in great voice on full arrangements of "I Got Rhythm," "The Way You Look Tonight" and his '90s comeback hit "Steppin Out," complete with flash pivots. He used his raspy, scarred voice to great effect on "But Beautiful" and vamped with gravelly barks on "Pick Up the Pieces."

On the deceptively simple "The Shadow of Your Smile," the time signatures got away from him, until the band cued a basso nova beat and he started to rumba to everyone's delight. A showman who has more than one trick up his sleeve, all to the delight of the audience, Bennett demonstrated that he still has daring, turning "Maybe This Time," from the 1966 Broadway hit Cabaret, into a brittle art song, belting out the finish after Musiker's showy solo.

Bennett shared classy stories from his career, his anecdotal introduction to "Cold, Cold Heart" reminding the audience that it was a rendition which composer Hank Williams didn't like, even though it was a hit for Bennett. He called himself and Rosemary Clooney the original American Idols because they got their start together on a modest talent competition. He recounted receiving a note of thanks from Charlie Chaplin when he recorded "Smile," which he sang here with quiet, sincerity—an anthem for a troubled time. By the time he got to his signature hit "I Left My Heart In San Francisco," there was some vocal fog and missed crooning, but it hardly mattered.

Bennett's daughter, Antonia, opened the show; possessing more of a Broadway voice, her best number was the duet with her dad of Stephen Sondheim's "Old Friends."

Bennett beamed at the reception from the Philadelphia audience, recalling with heartfelt thanks that the city's audiences have been great to him since 1950. In reverence to the Academy of Music (the oldest opera house in the US) he sang without a mike on "Fly Me To The Moon," with just Sargent accompanying. It was a triumphant moment that was met with bravos befitting this stage.

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