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Bette Midler’s “Divine Intervention” At Madison Square Garden, Thursday, June 25th, 2015, Review

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Bette Midler At Madison Square Garden, June 25th, 2015, by Sherry Davis

Vaudeville is the final dead art form, not the way rock or jazz is dead, but dead dead. It doesn’t exist any more. This helps 69 year old Bette Midler (who added vaudeville to pop back in 1970 and never looked back) because when she says, as she claimed last night at Madison Square Garden, during her “Divine Intervention” concert in support of her terrific current album It’s The Girls, a joke is 35 years old, she meant in its current condition, the joke was actually 70 years old.

However, nobody was complaining as Bette in her Sophie Tucker mode, rattled off one liners about her man Earl while this year’s model Harlettes performed back up.” I will never forget it you know. I was in bed one night with my boyfriend Ernie and he said to me, “Soph, how come you never tell me when you’re having an orgasm?” I said to him, “Ernie, you’re never around!” Ba da bum. Bette has been doing this for a long time and her timing is impeccable and so is her performance. It is a performance,  though, she seems to interact with the audience but  she doesn’t really, it is 90% schtick and good schtick. This is smartly, sometimes even updated Borsch Belt. Her claim that women’s butts were the new women’s boobs is funny, on target and actually kinda fascinating. It is fun. As a performer she echoes through the ages, there is a relationship with Fanny Brice -she is a real funny girl.

It is what we want from this great performer, the Bette we saw on Seinfeld when Kramer became her slave, a sort of perfect world of diva and devil,. At 69 years of age, a willingness to dress up as a canary (though not a mermaid -she killed off Delores DeLago in a video montage), and to fun herself and the world at large, especially a montage of what would have been if she’d realized that there was billions in private sex tapes, the photoshopped pictures including Putin (he was too quick) and Nixon (“Why do you think they called him Tricky Dicky?”).

I love Bette in full comic mode, and she was in full comic mode a lot of time, her jokes never miss not because they are particularly funny but because she tells them so well, it is like a reflex or a muscle, a heartbeat stop between set up and punch line, she doesn’t linger over them, everything is rapid fire bawdiness and double takes, she walks across the stage divine and in complete control of all her instruments. About to become a septuagenarian,  she looks terrific from a distance (sic) even if it is all hocus pocused (double sicced) and a trick they do with modern science, she looked great. Her energy level was very high. Sure, at under two hours and with two ten minute breaks the set is skimpy, but what there is is prime Bette.

The problem is the music, and particular the big ballads which are either  camp and overblown or camp, overblown and bad. Of the evenings best moments, “Tell Him” and “Teach Me Tonight” off the new album and “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” and “Everybody Knows” from her catalog, two were girl group extravaganzas, she rocked “Tell Me” nicely and she got all “One thing isn’t very clear, my love, should the teacher stand so near, my love” , completely unlike Etta James, it is pop not soul, and Doris day pop as well. Both songs featured the Harlottes to excellent effect and the full orchestra held their power in and rocked extra hard on “Tell Me”. Something they failed to do on “Beast Of Burden”. .

The other two songs have this in common: they were written by two great Jewish songwriters, giants of 20th century pop. Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen. Randy is an everyman and one of our great wordsmiths lost in soundtracks for decades, whenever he decides to write a new song, whether it be the soft shoe “You’ve Got A Friend” or the extensive sarcasm of “A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country”, he goes straight to the top of the class. “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” off his first album is a well observed piece of homelessness pastiche and Bette over sings it, literally pretending to cry when she gets to “human kindness is overflowing..” an odd choice to over sing, it is dramatic enough for one thing and for another: in the song Randy is reading a poster, that’s the whole point. Why does it work? Because it is such a great song that she can’t destroy.

Leonard Cohen, debatably the best songwriter not named Zimmerman, wrote “Everybody Knows” as a secular Talmudic prayer. It honors his past, Cohen’s paternal grandfather was the  founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and the song is both current, timeless and of the moment. For Bette, it honors her Jewish heritage and also echoes the very beginning of her career, performing on Broadway in “Fiddler On The Roof”. Sure, she over sings it, but only up to a place where its history sweeps her up.

Once you get to the heart of the matter (I left before the encore), she just overwhelmed the songs. If Bette is still camp, where was the gay contingent? And if she wasn’t, how can you excuse the dull early “Do you Want To Dance?” or the atrocious three song end to the set, “The Rose”, “From A Distance” and “Stay With Me”. They are all worse than the recorded versions and they were always lousy Middle Of The Road bombastic pop mush. All sung way past the point of no return. sung so over the top, you just wish she would stop. During the show, Bette claimed she renovates old lost songs, but she does nothing of the sort: she flips em like houses she wants to sell at a profit.

Compared to Barbra Streisand, she doesn’t have the chops to add importance to bad songs. I prefer It’s The Girls to Partners, and by far, but Bette isn’t a great singer, she isn’t Barbra or Etta -she is a popstress and a good one and when she unloads on a song I want to head for the hills screaming in terror. There was no excuse for “I Put A Spell On You” and less of an excuse for “Waterfalls” Left Eye’s (who died at 22 years of age back in 1995) lasting moment, which Bette hammered into the ground.

Yeah, I know, she’s a national treasure, she is funny and fun, saucy and self-deprecating, she has a great reputation as simply a good one and has been married to the same guy since 1984,, and at 69 years old, unlike Delores DeLago, she is still going fine. But man, can she suck a song dry.

Grade: B

 

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