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In Memory Of The Late Master Of Croon: Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet To Come, At Radio City Music Hall, Thursday, September 15th, 2016, Reviewed

Twenty minutes into a taping of NBC’s network special Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet To Come, At Radio City Music Hall last night, a voice from the upper mezz began singing “Happy Birthday To You” and soon he was not alone, the entire audience joined in, and slowly Tony, sitting next to his wife on one side and Lady Gaga on the other, rose to his feet, turned from the stage and smiled at us. It was the only spontaneous moment of the evening, a meeting of the upper middle class white affluent and the middle class white affluent, in tribute to a long career. The entire evening was a mediocre attempt to do the same thing, to celebrate the last man standing. but it could be only broken through with a largess of heart equal to the man : a New York institution in a New York institution singing to New York constituents. Better than that was Tony Bennett’s mini set, starting with an “The Best Is Yet To Come” that put everybody who had proceeded him in their place and climaxing in “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”.

 The taping of the special (to be shown in December) wasn’t all that, though once it is edited it might be. It had its moments, a taped Billy Joel and Tony duet from early August, at Joel’s epic ongoing MSG residence, of “New York State Of Mind” made you wish you were there, but they were offset by baffling performances. Andrea Bocelli’s boggling “Ave Maria” was, well, baffling, the Alec Baldwin as Tony and Mario Cantone as Liza Minnelli stopped the entire evening in its tracks as we gazed upon them in mute horror, the  “Happy Birthday To You” was terrible, the closing out of the evening singalong to  “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” had no reason to be anywhere near there and Lady Gaga’s  heartfelt tribute, well, maybe she should have texted it. Also, naturally enough, any taped performance for a variety show has no momentum at all.

The real problem is a straight up inquiry: who is Tony Bennett? Tony was a good to great second generation crooner following in the footsteps of Sinatra, but with a greater penchant for jazz. He broke pop for a couple of years but maintained a sort of Frankie Vallieish half life between pop emblem and nostalgia merchant, and then two things brought him back to the forefront of modern culture. First, he kept on living, we all love a survivor, and next, his son brokered an MTV Unplugged special back in 1994, that brought him and sold him to the MTV generation, who couldn’t believe their ears. That would be enough, though as Wynton Marsalis noted while introducing Stevie Wonder, not only was Tony the live entertainment for Martin Luther King’s march on Selma (Harry Bellafonte was the conduit), he was also a good friend of Duke Ellington and smuggled the Duke into “whites only” hotels when they toured. We are not talking Dre and  Eminem here, there could be have been serious repercussions in 1964, the end of Tony’s career being the least of them.

All of which leads us to a tribute to Bennett, which seemed wrong footed -there was one too many bad ideas.The evening began with Alec’s Tony Bennett performance, funny when Alec performed it on SNL, but unfunny mostly because the writing didn’t work. Then it was down to business. Lady Gaga’s fair “The Lady Is A Tramp” proves yet again that her singing keeps getting better, followed by Leslie Odom Jr’s excellent jazz inflected “Autumn Leaves”and Michael Buble’s obvious “The Good Life”  (more Frank than Tony). Whenever Diana Krall gets her Nat King Cole on she is at her very best and after a feigned bit of twitchy self-deprecation, “The World On A String” is what we love most about her. Rufus Wainwright took “Anything But Love” slow and dreamy, and kd Lang, one of the great singers of her generation, was fine with “A Wish To Build A Dream”. Stevie Wonder is a national treasure so on and so forth, an iffy “Vision” followed by an OK “Sir Duke”… too much Stevie, not enough Tony.

I could have lived a long time without hearing Gaga’s overwrought “La Vie En Rose”. “Thank you Tony, you’ve made me happy for 90 years, that’s more than many people can say, many people can’t say that…” And many people wouldn’t say that. She flashed her panties around about now but sadly I missed it. This was followed by film of Elton John performing his terrible Lion King big schmaltz “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” and an equally rotten Andrea Bocelli with children’s choir singing “Ave Maria”. Whatever we might feel about the guy, surely this has nothing to do with Bennett.

The proof is a four song performance that was easily the highlight of the night. His touch as light as a feather on “The Best Is Yet To Come” was followed by the sort of powerful performance Elton should listen to. I was never keen on James Ingrams’s “How Do You Keep The Music Playing”  but Sinatra would have been proud to put his name on it. “Fly Me The Moon” with no amplification is a trick whose time is passed “Who Can Ask For Anything More” swung harder than Gene Kelly. And “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” was a must of course.

The moral here is: Bennett sang circles round these cats and the title of the show is accurate., as long as he is alive, the best will indeed be yet to come.

Grade: B

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