A year or so after his MTV appearance on Unplugged, I went to see Tony Bennett at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow. It was 1996, he was about to turn 70, and I thought this might be the last time I’d get a chance to see the great man live in concert. In the subsequent 20 years, Bennett has won a further 13 Grammys and two Emmys, released 13 albums, including two duet albums where he partners the likes of Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, Lady Gaga and Stevie Wonder.
Not a bad effort by the old chap, although it was with some trepidation that I took my seat at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. I’ve been to some gigs where the performers are obviously so far past their best that it’s heart-breaking – but I needn’t have worried. He was introduced onstage by a crackly recording of Frank Sinatra. “I wanna introduce Tony Bennett! He’s gonna tear the place up! He’s the greatest singer in the world!”
Though his advancing years have had an impact on his overall vocal stamina, and he was a little wobbly early on, he soon warmed up – and in short bursts he was hitting notes nobody in their 90s should reach. He seems to have adapted his technique to make use of what he has left, and that’s actually a great deal. He uses the mic economically, pulling it away if a note is starting to waver, and saves his energy for some big finishes – Stranger in Paradise (surprisingly, his only UK number one single) being a particularly stirring example. He’ll avoid some of the higher notes but in doing so, is forced to make more interesting melodic choices.
He can still convey a lyric better than most and, although earnest in his delivery, there’s a familiarity and gentleness to the performance. You can tell this is all rehearsed to within an inch of its life, and with anyone else you would question the patter. But this is Tony Bennett. He’s old-school. He damn-near invented this style. So, when he half-laughs as he sings the line, “And that laugh wrinkles your nose” in The Way You Look Tonight, it’s endearing rather than cheesy. And when he slips a hand into his pocket and leans back on the grand piano, singing One For My Baby, he’s the coolest guy in the room.
Special mention must go to his band which features some top names. On drums we had Harold Jones (drummer for Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis Jr), guitarist Gray Sargent (who worked with Illnois Jacquet, Benny Carter and Phil Woods), Marshall Wood on bass (Amy Winehouse, Ruby Braff) and pianist Billy Stritch (Liza Minnelli’s piano player) – a stellar line up who complimented Bennett’s vocals with warm, luxurious accompaniment.
Towards the end, each song was greeted with a standing ovation, bigger and longer each time. Understandable when the set list is a meander through his back catalogue of hits, including such stone-cold classics as The Good Life, Rags To Riches and, of course, I Left My Heart In San Francisco (my karaoke song of choice, although Tony does it more justice, to be fair). When he puts his microphone down and goes fully unplugged for Fly Me To The Moon, filling the space with sound for the final encore, the entire audience is on its feet.
Tony Bennett stood for more than 90 minutes and forgot not a single line (there were 26 songs). At one point, he declared, “I never want to retire!” On this display alone, I reckon he’s got a good few years in him yet.
By Chris Payne, Head Photographer