When Tony Bennett stepped smoothly onto the stage of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland on the evening of May 27, 2011, and began his performance with "Watch What Happens," he was not merely a well-known singer making another appearance before an excited audience. Tony Bennett actually is something more: a living example of musical history. He is an abundantly gifted entertainer whose rare abilities have, over a period of sixty years, embodied the best elements of American music.
At eighty-four (soon to be eighty-five), Tony Bennett has outlived most of his onetime peers. He now remains as one of the last masters of a vocal tradition that flourished in the 1940s and 1950s, with the renowned voices of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Mel Torme, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, and others. The studious devotion that he brings to the great songs of past decades is not the transitory pose of a youthful hipster seeking to follow a passing trend. Instead, it represents the solid fruition of a long lifetime in which steadfast talent and knowledgeable taste have served as the main guideposts. Tony Bennett sings each of his songs as if he truly knows them and truly understands them.
On a cold and rainy night in Portland, Tony Bennett offered durable songs ("They All Laughed," "Sing, You Sinners," "I Got Rhythm," "When You're Smiling," "Once Upon a Time," "Steppin' Out with My Baby," "The Best Is Yet to Come") that have stood the test of time, as well as many of the hits ("Cold, Cold Heart," "Smile," "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," "I Wanna Be Around," "The Good Life," "The Shadow of Your Smile," "For Once in My Life,") that brought him to his current fame. He also performed a duet with his daughter, Antonia Bennett (who opened the show with several songs on her own). The expert backing was provided by a combo that included Lee Musiker on piano, Gray Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass, and Harold Jones (referred to by Tony Bennett as "Count Basie's favorite drummer") on drums.
Although Tony Bennett's younger days are far behind him, his unmistakable voice continues to be warm and powerful, and he uses it with undiminished skill. His unerring feel for timing and rhythm is one of the many qualities that have set him high above most other singers. "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" was given an extended rendering, with the venerable singer confidently pushing his singular voice to its fullest range. He later topped that particular feat by standing at the front of the stage and singing "Fly Me to the Moon" without a microphone. In between songs, he shared his memories of the famous people who had touched his life, telling brief stories that described his valued connections to Pearl Bailey, Bob Hope, Hank Williams, and Charlie Chaplin.
Throughout the performance, he displayed an easy and assured showmanship (he has never been known as a dancer, but he delighted the audience several times by stepping and spinning with a surprising degree of grace for a man in his eighties) that was never false or overblown. In 2011, Tony Bennett is an unquestioned treasure who stands nearly alone in his chosen field of sophisticated musicality. It was an experience of pure joy to hear him singing the standards of American song with ageless style.