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Tony Bennett State of Mind: Bennett at the Palace. Photo by John Whipple.

A Complete Artist
By Shawn Stone

Tony Bennett
Palace Theatre, May 1

It was a swanky crowd that made up the packed house at the Palace last Thursday, but no one—not even Mayor Jerry Jennings, who was really trying to work it—was as suave as Tony Bennett. With a million-dollar smile to match his sharp dark suit, Bennett radiated a sense of ease known only to the most comfortable and accomplished of entertainers. He and his four-piece combo held the stage for 90 minutes of seemingly effortless pop and jazz.

His precise command of his voice makes it all possible. While he may not have the vocal range or sustained power of, say, 40 or 50 years ago, Bennett also doesn’t have to contend with the commercial requirements of that era. (Ever hear his Hank Williams covers?) He has done some of his most interesting work in the last dozen years, and this was reflected in the songs and arrangements he chose for his set. The effect was that of an artist of great taste and in full command of his interpretive powers.

Though he performed the hits people expected—you know ’em, I don’t even have to list the titles—Bennett also sprinkled his set with a slew of intriguing, lesser-known songs, including Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens” (the English-language rewrite of an insidiously catchy tune from the film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).

Of the multiple tribute albums Bennett released over the last decade, none was more effective than his nod to Fred Astaire, Steppin’ Out. It’s no surprise, then, that his back-to-back renditions of “Steppin’ Out,” “You’re All the World to Me,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” were some of the highlights. That wasn’t all the Astaire we were treated to, either, as Bennett and company swung hard on the Gershwins’ “Who Cares? (So Long as You Care for Me),” which bore little relation to the disc version.

Bennett’s band, including standouts Gray Sargent on guitar and Clayton Cameron on drums, got the chance to stretch out on a trio of Duke Ellington songs. “In a Mellow Tone” was relaxed and light; “Mood Indigo” was appropriately bluesy; and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” had that swing.

It’s worth mentioning that Bennett didn’t duck offstage at every opportunity—he stayed and listened to his band.

If, as noted before, no person outshined Bennett that night, the theater almost did. The restored Palace interior is truly impressive. Bennett didn’t spend much time on between-song patter, but—as this was the newly restored Palace’s gala event—he took time to comment on the venue. “They don’t build theaters like this anymore, they build filing cabinets,” he said. He added his sincere hope that no one ever turns the Palace into insurance offices. (One couldn’t help wondering if Bennett was alluding to the grim fate of New York City’s legendary Paramount Theater, which was infilled with offices.)

After a couple of well-deserved standing ovations, Bennett finished up with Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” and the anthemic “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” And, as Bennett is an artist who keeps looking forward, he ended the evening not with one of his all-time favorites, but with “You Can Depend on Me,” a tune from his latest album. No matter. Bennett could have finished up with “Old MacDonald,” and the crowd would have loved it.

Smells Like Teen Dispirit

Bright Eyes, Arab Strap
Calvin Theatre, Northampton, Mass., May 2

If I say “the musical voice of his generation,” how likely is it that you’ll think, reflexively, “Bob Dylan?”

Probably a fair number of you—even those of you not actually of Dylan’s generation—will think of the crusty old icon. Certainly, he’s got a better claim on the title than many others of the era (all apologies to Merrell Fankhauser); but the overuse of Dylan as an adjective has robbed any such comparison of meaning: There have been so many “new Dylans”—from Steve Forbert to Beck—that the title lacks descriptive power. It’s become a sort of vague shorthand for “promising new singer-songwriter” or putative voice of one’s generation, and all musical similarities may be negligible—though an acoustic guitar doesn’t hurt.

So, it’s no surprise that Conor Oberst, aka Bright Eyes, has gotten the Dylan-of-his-generation tag, though he really isn’t Dylanesque (acoustic guitar notwithstanding). He is admitedly a songwriter of precocious force, subtlety, sensitivity and convincing emotion. If, however, he is the voice of his generation, we’re gonna need—to paraphrase Slim Pickens—a whole shitload of Xanax.

The early-20-something Oberst’s album work is gorgeous in its lo-fi angst; it’s like listening to the four-tracks of Kurt Cobain’s private-school-educated younger brother, all literate and tortured introversion. However, at the Calvin Theatre on Friday, the inherent celebratory nature of a live rock show and the sonic variety provided by Oberst’s fine backing band—who ranged from Harvest Moon-style California country through space-age bachelor-pad swank to folk protest song—filled the space with an almost playful air. Quite a feat, given Oberst’s lyrical approach: Far more directly confessional than the often- enigmatic Dylan, Oberst wears his heart, not to mention his generalized political convictions, on his sleeve. Songs about romantic indecision were matched with screeds against media misinformation; and throughout, a sense of general dread and what the French would call nostalgie de la boue pervaded (“No one ever plans to sleep out in the gutter/Sometimes it’s just the most comfortable place”). And, oddly enough, it was a lot of fun.

Oberst is never so opaque as Dylan, coming across as a somewhat self-involved, slightly affected but nontheless compelling and accessible diarist; in short, like early Paul Simon. (If, in your shameful heart of hearts, “I Am a Rock” ever spoke to you, you are not alone.) But Oberst is decidely a post-grunge songwriter, and when he ends a song that begins with the Simonesque introductory line “I have a friend who’s mostly made of pain” with the raspy bellow “I’m a waste of breath, of space, of time,” you feel that this is teen angst a baby boomer would be foolish to attempt.

Opening were Scotland’s Arab Strap, who turned in a set of pleasantly gloomy, melodically restrained Leonard Cohenesque mopery.

 

—John Rodat

Jazzing Up the Rock

The Charles Mingus Orchestra with Elvis Costello
The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, May 3

From the photos and models I’d seen, I didn’t like Frank Gehry’s buildings at all. They look like open tissue boxes with sheets coming out of the top, all frivolous and lacking in heft. The buildings intrude rather than join.

Walking down a grassy slope while approaching Gehry’s new theater building at Bard College as the sun was setting, I had to rethink all this. The building, sheathed in gleaming waves of stainless steel, is awesome and powerful. The building speaks as few do. It dominates. I’m still not sure I like Gehry now, but I sure do respect him. Lots.

The main theater is surprisingly spartan, with concrete floors and walls. The seats consist of two plywood slats covered with upholstered foam. It was as if all the money got blown on all the stainless steel out front. Even so, the room has a minimal majesty, and the unmistakable aura of a very special place.

Enough about that. Saturday’s show started with the Mingus Orchestra running through a couple of Mingus pieces. Mingus, who died more than 20 years ago, was a composer who leaned mostly on the jazz idiom, while simultaneously throwing out influences from everywhere else. The 11-piece orchestra, which included bass clarinet, French horn and bassoon, generated unique and beguiling textures to match the unique and beguiling compositions. Some pieces were stop-start, some were dissonant, some strutted, and some were quietly shifting pastiches of sound. But all of the pieces swung big time, they all were in constant motion.

Elvis Costello walked out on stage after two songs, and after a few quiet words, took the band into the Mingus tune “This Subdues My Passion.” Costello, who was invited to add lyrics (and to some extent, melody) to certain Mingus pieces, was all over the material, and in attack mode. He was endearingly awkward physically, moving around with a handheld microphone; he looked like what you would expect someone who’s spent 25 years performing while holding a guitar would look like. But the awkwardness was natural and easy.

Costello’s Mingus lyrics were not much different in substance and tone than those on his first album, and while the melodies were certainly more obtuse, it was thrilling to see Costello apply the same attitude to jazz that he has to rock. And with this material, it was more than appropriate. It was perfect.

Then came the turnabout. Costello led the band through Mingus-like arrangements of his own songs. “Clubland” bounced between a salsa beat and a carnival waltz. A Bill Frisell arrangement of “Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue” would have been shocking in most other contexts, but was fairly straightforward compared to everything else going on.

After a long hour, a long intermission, and another hour, the orchestra encored with several more pieces, including a Costello arrangement of “Watching the Detectives,” so strong as to make one forget about the original. Unreal. Let’s go another hour, shall we?

Despite the concrete surfaces everywhere, the acoustics of the room were astonishing. The orchestra played with minimal amplification, and several times the audience was spoken to off-mike, and everybody could hear fine.

There is only a recording of one song available of Costello singing with the orchestra, on a recent orchestra CD. I heard a rumor that Saturday’s performance was being recorded for an album. I didn’t see any evidence of that in the room, but I do hope it’s true. This combination has to be captured, and has to be spread around.

—Paul Rapp


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