Tony Bennett, Palladium, London
Emmy the Great, Wedgwood Rooms, Portsmouth
Tony Bennett may be 85 and the last of his line but he's still got the chops to hit the big notes
Sunday 09 October 2011
Frankie's gone. Dino's gone. Sammy's gone. Who's still standing? Tony Bennett, that's who. Eighty-five years old, the last of the crooners from the golden age, and the coolest man in London Town tonight.
And London Town knows it. The stalls of the Palladium look like one of those ITV An Audience with... shows. Glance to my left, Moira Stuart. Glance to my right, Andrew Sachs. Glance straight ahead, Edwina Currie. (Look, I didn't say they were all good celebrities.) And, with a better seat than any of them, me.
The one thing we all have in common is trepidation. Tony Bennett is very old indeed. The oldest singer I've ever seen perform. He jokes about it, pretending to forget he's been singing for 60 years, but can a man of Bennett's vintage still do it?
At the end of the second song, there's a palpable relaxation in the room when the silver fox, a red handkerchief peeking from the breast pocket of his suit, executes a 360-degree spin, does a bit of soft-shoe shuffle and hits a big, big note, and we realise as one that we're in the hands of a master. Bennett came up in an age when amplification was minimal or non-existent, and it shows: his voice is so powerful that he has to hold the microphone at hip height to avoid it distorting. Once you've got those chops, you never lose them.
His anecdotes are practised but endearing, as he tells us "Rosemary Clooney and I were the first American Idols ...", explains that his stage name was given to him by Bob Hope because "Anthony Benedetto was too long for the marquee", and reminisces about Hank Williams phoning him up after hearing Bennett's cover of "Cold Cold Heart" to ask "What's the idea of ruining my song?", and receiving a much kinder letter from Charlie Chaplin about his version of "Smile".
He's backed by a simple quartet which includes legendary drummer Harold Jones, who played with Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Jones's presence is also a reminder that Bennett was brave enough to cross the colour bar at a time when doing so was a genuine risk, putting his career on the line by attending civil rights marches and refusing to play apartheid South Africa. That coolness I mentioned earlier runs deeper than natty threads.
Despite the fact that his latest album is Duets II, the collaborations are kept to a minimum. Cleo Laine, now using a walking stick, takes all the time in the world to walk on and off for a truly touching "The Way You Look Tonight", but that's only as long as it takes for the applause to end.
Leona Lewis might have thought about wearing flat shoes before coming on for "Who Can I Turn To?" She's at least a foot taller than Tony.
It would take a heart of granite not to recognise the poetry in "Shadow of Your Smile". And nobody is worried about anachronism – indeed, being old-fashioned is a huge part of his appeal – but he trails a Gershwin number from 1934 by saying "Let me show you how contemporary it is ...", covering his eyes for comedy effect as it begins: "Let it rain and thunder, let a million firms go under ..."
At Tony Bennett's age, you're doing this for the love, not the money. It shows. His finale is astounding, as he drops his microphone to the floor and belts out "Fly Me to the Moon" unaccompanied, earning a standing ovation which he acknowledges with a cheery hand-to-brow salute.
If we're all moved by this overwhelming manifestation of what we've lost, we're not alone. Before he leaves, Bennett describes the Palladium as "the greatest theatre in the world". He pauses, looks around the auditorium's burnt-bronze rococo splendour, and, referring to theatre architects, adds, "They make filing cabinets now..."
When Emma-Lee Moss approached me in a pub five years ago to hand me an EP with the name Emmy the Great on it, I was immediately put off by the name. Moss herself reportedly now regrets the name but, for better or worse, she's lumbered with it. And, for the record, the preconceptions it raises are very wide of the mark.
The Hong Kong-born singer stands stock still and impassive, a dead ringer for a beauty from one of those exotic 1970s paintings, until she opens her mouth and something amazing happens. Not only does Emmy have a voice of unexpected power, backed by a sound which recalls the best moments of Mazzy Star and Cowboy Junkies, but she uses it to deliver songs which are actually about things – gods and goddesses, mixtapes and near misses – rather than the usual self-regarding singer-songwriter rubbish. There's an impressive economy at play here. Not a line is wasted.
The stories Moss tells are not so much anecdotes as anti-dotes, like the deliberately banal tale about parking a car in a Portsmouth shopping centre whose name she can't remember. But this deadpan act is part of her understated charm. Despite that boastful name, you get the impression that Moss is unaware of her own quality: Emmy the really rather good.
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