Photo by Sara Bill
He didn’t have the microphone in his hand anymore. Didn’t need it, either.
Tony Bennett was on his 23rd song of the night, winding up a personal tour through his 60-plus-year career. He’d taken the packed Riverside Theater from an opener of “Watch What Happens,” to a duet of “Hey Old Friend” with 40-year-old daughter (and opening act) Antonia Bennett, and, eventually, on the requisite stop to see his heart in San Francisco. Twice, the silver-haired man in the sharp while shirt and dark suit asked the crowd if he should keep singing. Both times, they gave the only possible answer – shouts of yes.
Now, fresh off a crushing of “When You’re Smiling,” and getting a full standing ovation for it, and responding with a heartfelt “Thank you very much,” he’d laid the mic on the piano. Guitarist Gray Sargent had sidled up next to Bennett, and the master, who only seems like he’s been around since before electricity, started singing with no electric help beyond the spotlight.
It was “Fly Me to the Moon,” and it was loud and clear all the way up in the balcony, and perhaps up to the moon, which is just where he pointed while belting his last “I love you.” The crowd erupted, and Bennett acknowledged this latest standing ovation with arms out wide and a quarter-bow, followed by a trademark pump of his right fist. He brought that arm across his heart, touching his hand to his red pocket square. Then he turned to his right and began shuffling off the stage, as if propelled by the waves of applause.
The spotlight followed, pausing when he stopped about two-thirds of the way. Bennett turned to face his public again, gave a thumbs-up, then continued his slow walk and disappeared into the wings.
But the crowd cheered on, and so Bennett returned. He gave another bow, and a double thumbs-up, then exited again to his right. By now, his four band members had joined in the continuing exhortations, and Bennett came back a second time. He brought his right hand up to his brow and saluted the theater before heading once more into the wings. The masses tried dragging him back out, waiting and hoping for yet another glimpse. But the house lights came up, the band members stood and made their own exits, and the finale was indeed final.
And so, patrons made their reluctant exit, too, perhaps sensing they’d never again see Bennett sing in Milwaukee. There have been whispers he might be on his last tour, and while it would be hard to blame an 87-year-old for ditching the road, he’d just crystallized that performance demands no such decision.
Perhaps Bennett’s high notes aren’t quite as crisp as his suit nor as high as they were in his prime, but these are mere quibbles, drops in the virtuoso’s ocean of appeal. He’d come on stage in the wake of a long-ago message from Frank Sinatra, whose voice crackled over the speaker system, pronouncing Bennett the “greatest singer in the world.” Who’s gonna argue with Frank?
Yes, the Riverside crowd may have skewed older, but one glance through the theater proved AARP cards weren’t required. Bennett may be the last true old-school crooner standing, but he is standing firm, and his style transcends generations. He confirmed it three songs in with “Maybe This Time,” injecting hopeful poignancy into its steady pacing, then ramping up to that rousing face-punch of “Maybe this time… I’ll… winnnnn.” As he clasped his hands before him, one lady in the balcony couldn’t help but gasp, “Oh my word.”
Photo by Mitch Teich
His duet with Antonia featured a playful soft-shoe dance, complete with his somewhat-stiff spin that drew more than a few laughs. And he drew a few more when talking about his "wonderful friend Lady Gaga," who co-stars with him on a forthcoming duet album called Cheek to Cheek, and asking people to buy it "because she really needs the money."
But when he became a quieter philosopher of love with “Once Upon a Time,” it was as if he’d remembered its original emotions for the very first time. He exudes such contemplative gravitas, shared through lyrics both whispered and wailed, that you almost feel as if it's not a legend singing to you, but a lifelong friend. And so, when he toasts you at the end of "One For My Baby," you want to buy him another drink.
It's this quality that sets Bennett apart, and his grandfatherly ways have only enhanced it. The connection with his audience remains as full as the pipes. And so, despite all that Bennett has given his craft, through 60-plus years of songs or 60-plus minutes on stage, the people are always left wanting more.