mon 30/11/2020

Tony Bennett, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Tony Bennett, Royal Festival Hall

Tony Bennett, Royal Festival Hall

Sinatra's favourite singer defies time and breaks hearts

There’ll be no Lady Gaga tonight. Tony Bennett’s most public performances over the last 20 years have been in duets with such lesser talents, or in Glastonbury’s borderline ironic old-timers’ slot. The crackly recording of Sinatra calling him “the greatest singer in the world” which precedes him has introduced the 88-year-old for decades now, as if he still needed the recommendation of the long-gone Chairman of the Board. But these days, Tony Bennett stands alone.

There’ll be no Lady Gaga tonight. Tony Bennett’s most public performances over the last 20 years have been in duets with such lesser talents, or in Glastonbury’s borderline ironic old-timers’ slot. The crackly recording of Sinatra calling him “the greatest singer in the world” which precedes him has introduced the 88-year-old for decades now, as if he still needed the recommendation of the long-gone Chairman of the Board. But these days, Tony Bennett stands alone. The “saloon singer” Sinatra called him is a vanishing art he embodies. His two nights at the Royal Festival Hall, instead of one at the Royal Albert Hall, or an O2 blow-out with famous friends, is an artistic choice which pays off wonderfully. He has decided to play a room where he can really sing; where he can see us, and we can hear him.

Before he appears, the Tony Bennett Quartet, including Count Basie’s latter-day drummer Harold Jones (a mere stripling of 74) ease through jazz standards including Ellington’s “Take the A Train”. It gives a moment to reflect on the sometimes brave decency which characterises this singer’s long career. He stood up to the Mafia, who Sinatra revered, and advocated civil rights for black Americans while others kept quiet. When Amy Winehouse (pictured above with Bennett) died, he gave the most eloquent testament to her talent’s jazz roots, proving his duets with younger musicians were about more than prolonging his career. Modest, good-humoured humanity is at his art’s heart.

When he slips on-stage, he is silver-haired and solid-looking, as he has been for several decades. His fist clenches in virile triumph when he roars at the end of Cabaret’s “Maybe This Time”, but such over-compensating proofs of potency are kept in check. Late Bennett is very different from the blowsy crudity of late Sinatra. He scats with sufficient vigour to draw drummer Jones from his seat at “I Got Rhythm”’s climax, and swings hard on “Sing You Sinners”.  “But Beautiful”, though, is more characteristic, sung with just jazz guitar, then soft double-bass and brushes, so bare and close you can hear the smack of the kiss he blows into the dark. He finds love’s ache in the lyric. “The Best Is Yet to Come” looks back on youthful passion for the largely pensionable, still fervent couples in the crowd who’ve followed him since their own teenage years. Then Bennett draws his voice down into the words of “The Way You Look Tonight”, which enriches love with the knowledge of passing time. “Keep that breathless charm, won’t you please arrange it, ‘cause I love you,” he pleads, vulnerably intimate but precise. His exposed voice barely quavers, and gently breaks my heart. Fatalism and romance are joined several times tonight.

“The Shadow of Your Smile” is bossa nova, and “Cold, Cold Heart" a Hank Williams country classic. It’s all the same to Bennett. When he sings the ultimate saloon song, “One for My Baby”, he raises a whiskey glass of water, and doesn’t fake the world-weariness of Sinatra’s version, or the more humorous worldliness of Billie Holiday’s, instead swinging and punching the words home. His signature tune, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”, is sung with characteristic understatement. The Gershwins’ “Life Is One Long Jubilee” allows him stormy, wild happiness. And finally, casually, he lays his microphone down, and sings “Fly Me to the Moon” to the back of the hall, 88 years old and unamplified, finding the feeling in each word.

Anyone who bought a ticket thinking this tour might be Bennett’s last should think again. He is an undiminished artist who loves his work. This good man won’t leave the stage willingly.  

His exposed voice barely quavers, and gently breaks my heart

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