Review: Tony Bennett, still a master of woo and wow at 87

Tony Bennett performs at the sold-out Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Petersburg on Wednesday night.
Tony Bennett performs at the sold-out Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Petersburg on Wednesday night.
Published Feb. 13, 2014


They stood up for him immediately and often, ovation after ovation not simply because Tony Bennett is still breathing, but because this 87-year-old man is somehow still belting the Great American Songbook with a verve even Sinatra envied.

This isn't respect-your-elders hyperbole. In fact, I'm going to spoil the ending for you right here and now, because it was the kind of slick showbiz showoffery that allows legends to stay legends. To close out his 80-minute set at a sold-out Mahaffey Theater on Wednesday, Bennett dropped the mike on a baby grand and delivered Fly Me to the Moon unplugged and supernaturally unfettered by time.

And yes, 2,025 admirers lifted again.

Bennett has always been a mix of old-school cool and humility, lacking the look-at-me starshine of the Rat Packers but delivering sexy in smokier ways.

The show opened with crackled audio from Ol' Blue Eyes himself calling his friend "the greatest singer in the world." Then the 17-time Grammy winner stepped into the spotlight with a "What, me?" look of surprise. Pure Vegas, baby.

Oh, there were times when you held your breath, like when the Queens native born Anthony Dominick Benedetto attempted a spinny dance move during the Gershwins' They All Laughed. His soft-shoe loop-de-loop wasn't exactly Michael Jackson crisp, but he nailed the landing. And again: HE'S 87!!!

Bennett is a master of phrasing, a jazz musician at heart. Backed by a lo-fi quartet that included Count Basie drummer Harold Jones and feathery guitarist Gary Sargent, the singer would deviate from the well-known script, deconstructing classics such as Cy Coleman's The Best Is Yet to Come and Jerome Kern's The Way You Look Tonight before veering back, at seemingly the last possible beat, to the standard's sing-along goodness.

Plus when you've uncorked I Left My Heart in San Francisco approximately 6 billion times, you need to mix things up to keep yourself interested. But, man, no matter how many times you've heard that nugget, you haven't really heard it until you sit a few rows from its finest interpreter. I got misty-eyed. I did.

Bennett has adapted to the tests of time and vocal cords, often starting a cut with a breathy, slightly croaked delivery then getting stronger with each verse, each chorus, until busting full-throttle for the close. He was feeling For Once in My Life so much, he uncorked the finale twice, each one a mighty wail.

The crowd was rich with those who remember when Tony was young, and yet Bennett's appeal is so wide-ranging, he's had his pick of pop stars to duet with in recent years, including Amy Winehouse, Christina Aguilera and Carrie Underwood. It's not debatable who made whom look cooler in those pairings.

Here he was joined onstage by another kid, daughter Antonia Bennett, a singer classically trained in cocktail mist. And yet, she seemed more rigid than her pop, who is still so hip, he paused midway through The Good Life to quip, without sounding the least bit odd or old or pandering: "I'd like to dedicate this song to my wonderful friend Lady Gaga." And sure, why not? He's Tony Bennett, after all.

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Sean Daly can be reached at Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter and Instagram.