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Monday, June 9, 2014

Tony Bennett @ The Riverside Theater

June 6, 2014

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Photo credit: Sara Bill
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It was a brief slip when Tony Bennett mentioned at The Riverside Theater Friday how he’d been singing professionally for 50 years. He quickly corrected himself and said it’s been 60 years. It was almost as if Bennett was taking himself for granted as an evergreen national musical institution.

And though he would be within his rights to tout his position as possibly the last link to an unrecoverable past, there was modesty and economy in Bennett’s performance with his four-piece ensemble, suggesting that they’re simply out to keep working, preserving quality song craft and interpretation of it. The only elements of his show remotely smacking of self-aggrandizement were the disembodied voice of Frank Sinatra introducing Bennett as the promising newcomer he was in the early 1950s, and a mention that the recent 80th anniversary issue of jazz magazine Downbeat listed Bennett as one of the genre’s top 10 living masters. The former was the briefest whiff of nostalgia in an evening where classicism trumped sentiment, the latter uttered as an aside in intention somewhere between “That’s just a fact” and “Hey, someone’s still appreciating us!” 

There was plenty to appreciate beyond the youthful energy level of an 87-year-old man refusing to resign himself to his dotage and giving a nearly full house a 25-song set. His voice remains a supple, nigh conversationally intimate instrument capable of a breadth of emotion from the deepest melancholy to glee at the merest providence, intimating the counterpoint to any given feeling with an almost studiously casual ease. And he was spry enough to spin himself around on more than one occasion, one of them during the duet he performed with his daughter, Antonia, who joined him on stage after opening for her father.

The suave joy in Bennett’s pipes wouldn’t mean anything if it weren’t for the quality of the work to which he plies them, though. His 90 minutes of music wended through the kind of songwriting that seems like a lost art in commercial radio chart music nowadays, from Hank Williams Sr. to George and Ira Gershwin. In one of his few reminiscences of the evening, Bennett fondly recalled the appreciative letter he received from Charlie Chaplin for having made his song “Smile” popular for a second time. 

Bennett’s signature song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” elicited but one of a handful of the night’s standing ovations. And though its conclusion seemed a natural enough place for Bennett to end his performance, the smidgen of time he was absent from the platform couldn’t truly qualify his next few concluding numbers as encores. Including his scion’s set, for whom her dad’s group also played, less than two hours had passed. For the consummate execution involved, however, it was a fulsomely brief encounter with an original and a survivor.