Fifty years. And Tony Bennett could pass for a man in the prime of his life as a singer.
He opened his Saturday night performance at Heinz Hall singing a wonderfully understated "The Best Is Yet to Come," a 1960 album cut. And from the moment his vocals danced across the lyric, "Out of the tree of life, I just picked me a plum," it was clear that this is Bennett's signature song.
"I Left My Heart in San Francisco" is fine. But no song captures the spirit, the passion, the charm, the unbelievable staying power of Tony Bennett the way his opening number does.
Now granted, his voice isn't nearly as smooth as it was in the days of "Rags to Riches," but if anything, it's aged into a more expressive instrument, perfect for drawing an audience into a ballad as poignant as Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" or "When Joanna Loved Me."
You could feel the heartbreak in the air as the singer recalled the girl who got away, practically whispering "When Joanna loved me, every town was Paris, every day was Sunday, every month was May" with an ache in his voice that put his original 1963 recording to shame.
His phrasing, as always, was brilliant, a quality even Sinatra was known to admire. As the Chairman once remarked, "For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. ... He's the singer who gets across what the composer had in mind."
He may want to scale back a bit on the endings (the ones where he belts out a phrase really loud all of the sudden and holds the final note until you're sure he can out-sing even Sporty Spice). It's great in places -- when appropriate -- but by the end of the night, it was feeling a little gimmicky, as was his "Look ma, no hands" performance of "Fly Me to Moon (In Other Words)," for which he asked the soundman to turn off the mike.
As he did last year, Bennett used the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra sparingly. He took the stage with only the great Ralph Yet to Come," "If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)" and a poignant "Autumn Leaves" that featured one of many phenomenal solos from Sharon. As Bennett was moved to salute him in song, "I love the fine way he plays a Steinway."
The Ralph Sharon Trio has grown a guitarist since last we saw them (and to tell you the truth, they don't really need him). The newly renamed quartet joined the singer on stage for a powerful "When Do The Bells Ring For Me?" the first song to feature the symphony.
The orchestration was tasteful, just the thing to give a tune that extra touch of class. They captured "Rags to Riches" and an emotional reading of Irving Berlin's "I Got Lost in Her Arms" perfectly. And when the singer scaled it back to just the combo, it honestly felt as though you were catching a glimpse of his days in the jazz clubs. Bennett even gave the drummer, Clayton Cameron, a chance to dazzle the crowd with a solo played on four sticks.
If there was a downside to the show, it was this: If you've seen Tony Bennett this decade, you've already seen the performance, give or take a song, right down to the four-stick solo and the way he calls out Judy Garland's name at the climax of "Over the Rainbow."
OK, sure, there were a few new touches, including a heartwarming tip of the hat to "the master, Frank Sinatra" while introducing a show-stopping encore performance of "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" But even the way he introduced the songs was often word for word the same as it ever was. I think I've now heard Bennett's joke about an offer he couldn't refuse while entertaining mobsters at four different concerts this decade.
And this will more than likely be the fourth
of those Bennett performances to win a spot on the PG's year-end "Best
of" list. But maybe next time, he could change it up a bit for those of
us who go to see him every time.