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Review: Tony Bennett, 90, gives ageless performance at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg

Tony Bennett performed at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on March 2, 2017.
Published Mar. 3, 2017

Crane your neck. Squint your eyes. Rack your brain. Search for any sign at all that Tony Bennett, age 90, should quit trying to defy Father Time.

His appearance? Not judging from his concert Thursday at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, where the crooner's iconic pucker, permanently pinched into a grin of courtly mischief, shone above his creamy blazer and beneath his ruffled silver coif.

His voice? Not a chance. Any points you might deduct for the rare dropped note are made up in spades with his palpable texture and crackling delivery, a symphony of syllables that snap like fingers in your face.

His stagemanship? Nah, not that, either. For nearly 90 minutes he shimmied, swirled, even stutter-stepped to the lip of the stage once or twice. He never sat, only left the stage once — only for a blink — and at the end jogged, actually JOGGED, back out for a curtain call.

No, the truth is clear: Tony Bennett is immortal. The man will outlive us all.

Every time Bennett comes back through Tampa Bay — and he does it a lot; Thursday's show was his eighth since turning 80 — you're tempted to think it must be his last. And then he puts on another show like Thursday's, where you realize age has nothing to do with it. He may have been born in the days of Tin Pan Alley — his life predates the Brill Building — but every trick he's picked up along the way still plays in the age of Pandora.

The way he clapped and spun on Gershwin's They All Laughed and I Got Rhythm, the way he blew kisses on The Way You Look Tonight and I Left My Heart in San Francisco, the way he shot up double-thumbs and stretched his arms wide between songs — C'mon, people, ain't this a kick? — it all felt timeless.

And that timelessness is important. One brilliant aspect of Bennett's latter-day concerts is his song selection. With hundreds, if not thousands of songs at his disposal, he chose songs that spoke to growth and maturity, to aging gracefully and beautifully. Songs like I'm Old Fashioned, Our Love Is Here to Stay, How Do You Keep the Music Playing and This is All I Ask ("As I approach the prime of my life / I find I have the time of my life").

He worked The Way You Look Tonight and Because of You into big, swelling finishes, and nailed the cascading crescendo of the remarkable How Do You Keep the Music Playing. Up went the house lights, and up went the crowd as Bennett once again smiled with arms outstretched, beaming like the Pope of Las Vegas.

Brilliant though his backing band was — pianist Billy Stritch tinkling on a Steinway, guitarist Gray Sargent noodling out nifty little riffs, bassist Marshall Wood bouncing out a rhythm, drummer Harold Jones sweeping and skittering beneath it all — it wasn't a band you could hide behind, not even for a second. Bennett's voice was front and center all night, with his band often playing so softly, so sparsely, you could almost hear the air between the notes.

A lesser singer of any age might shy from such silences, fearing the exposure they bring. Bennett met the challenge head on, lending tender intimacy to the gentle But Beautiful and the first song he ever recorded, The Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The Shadow of Your Smile got a breezy bossa nova makeover, and Bennett delivered a little soft-shoe to boot, but it still maintained its wistful beauty.

When you've been around the block as many times as Bennett, these are all old tricks, kinked out and perfected over a lifetime in the spotlight. But that doesn't diminish the chills of hearing Bennett sing I Left My Heart in San Francisco for the million-billionth time. And then there's that old parlor trick near the end, the one where he drops his microphone to sing Sinatra's Fly Me To the Moon sans amplification, his grainy but golden voice floating to the very back rows.

If every new-school crooner nowadays could do that, why don't they? How can this 90-year-old icon — the son of a Calabrian grocer, a man who fought in World War II and marched in Selma, a singer who starred on Johnny Carson's first Tonight Show — still captivate a capacity crowd without even picking up a mic?

Keep searching all you want for an answer. Or maybe don't. Maybe just enjoy that Bennett's still out there, working that ageless appeal for us all. And pray he doesn't stop anytime soon.

-- Jay Cridlin

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