Ambivalently on board, I continued my attempt at creating fun social adventures by attending a Tony Bennett concert at the Hollywood Bowl last night. I would say that I enjoy Tony Bennett, I certainly have an affinity for some of his classic songs, though some of my familiarity with them is through the interpretations of other singers, but I do not get in the car and think “wow, I really just want to listen to Tony Bennett right now.” I am by no means a super fan; I went mostly for the company and something to go out and do that did not involve a bar.
That said, the evening was mesmerizing. On every level. First, I will say that I am a great fan of standards, although that label means something and nothing to me at the same time since it really means popular music from a previous era. So it’s not pop, it’s not oldies – it just means great songs that have withstood the test of time, but it is still a rather generic catch all category.
Second, Tony Bennett is 87 years old, there was actually a cake and a chorus of Happy Birthday from the audience at the end, and he owned that stage with a guitarist, a pianist, a bassist and a drummer – and nothing else. No crazy sets, mild light shifts as the songs changed and a microphone. A showman and entertainer who commanded attention with an understated performance quality both spontaneous and polished. His vocal quality is wonderful, for any age. His ability to perform songs he has been singing for decades with a feeling of freshness while building anticipation, leading the audience to wonder how exactly the next lyric, known by nearly everyone in attendance, would be performed, was inspiring and electrifying. The songs are wonderful, and he clearly trusts the music and then simply stands there and tells the story of a song. That’s it. And it was exquisite.
There is a deceptive simplicity in performing “standards” well. They are songs so perfectly crafted – in melody and lyrics – that they don’t need anything “done” to them to make them compelling and interesting. However, to make them soar requires a deep understanding of the story of the song and how the melody progresses to make it impactful in a way that reminds everyone why the song is a standard in the first place. Tony’s daughter sang before him, and honestly, gave a master class in demonstrating the difference between getting all the notes and words out (what she did) and truly singing the song (what he did).
So the concert was phenomenal. My two favorite moments, of many, were his take on “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret and “Smile”.
Finally, the evening was fantastic for an entirely different set of reasons as well. It was an amazing concert experience. There were entire numbers where you could have heard a pin drop across the entire audience. No rustling, no coughing, no muttering to the person in the next seat – just rapt attention. In an outdoor space the size of the Bowl it was rather astonishing to experience. It was as though everyone collectively understood and respected that we were all going to love this, and no one was going to inhibit anyone else’s enjoyment. Now, I have to believe there were others there like me who are not super fans, but still everyone seemed to respect the greater sense of community. Certainly it’s a testament to the compelling nature of Tony’s performance, but it’s also reassuring that the ability for large crowds of people to still behave considerately still exists – something that seems to be growing rare at artistic events and even more so in generic public gatherings.
Now, I’m not suggesting that a Katy Perry concert needs to have the same kind of decorum, but in an age where people are answering their phones in movie theaters and texting their way through live theatre – it made me feel a little bit better about the future of public interaction. It’s likely that age and maturity were a factor, we were on the younger end of the audience, but even so – it is jaded Los Angeles where everyone works incredibly hard to appear unimpressed by anything.
Additionally, with the exception of Tony’s first entrance and encore moments, there were very few cellphones on display. In fact at one point, from our nosebleed seats, I counted the illuminated screens across the entire audience in front of me, and came up with twelve. That was it. Nearly the entire audience sat and just enjoyed the live experience. You could feel the collective intake of anticipation as “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” started. There are so many events these days where it seems the vast majority of people are watching something live through the screen of their cellphone as they attempt to document it. It’s sad to me. And it was refreshing to find that almost completely absent.
So what’s the point? Well, Tony Bennett is a phenomenal performer. A kind of singer and entertainer that is growing scarce. However, they are not gone and it turns out neither are the kind of audiences that can and will respect the communal nature of experiencing live art. So thanks to Tony, and thanks to everyone else in the audience – because it took everyone there to create such a truly memorable evening.
Now excuse me while I go post my photos on Instagram.