Forgive the double negative, but: At this point, when you mention Tony Bennett and the fact that he’s still touring in the year 2015, you simply can’t not bring up his age.
After all, those folks fortunate enough to reach the age of 89 often find it a struggle to perform the activities of daily living.
Then you have Tony Bennett.
Following a co-headlining tour with Lady Gaga that spanned three dozen shows and ended in August, the 18-time Grammy Award winner continues to prove he’s not yet ready for retirement – almost four decades after becoming eligible for AARP membership.
But many among the sold-out crowd of 2,400 at Ovens Auditorium on Saturday night had to be wondering as they settled into their seats: Does Bennett still have it?
The answer is pretty astonishing. Not just because it’s yes, but because it’s an unqualified yes.
Dressed in a dark suit and tie with a red pocket square, the legendary crooner took fans on a relatively brief (75 minutes) yet expansive journey (23 songs) in his first Charlotte concert since the Democratic National Convention in 2012. It began with a standing ovation as he ambled on stage and broke into opener “Watch What Happens” – a song he recorded with Natalie Cole for 2006’s “Duets II” – and ended with ... well, we’ll get to that.
Over the course of the evening, Bennett rolled through the Great American Songbook: Duke Ellington’s “(In My) Solitude,” Irving Berlin’s “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” and on and on.
And he did it with surprising brio. He pumped his fist in the air to add exclamation points to the end of his songs. Twice, he spun 360 degrees on his toes and gave a flash with his hands as if to say “ta-da,” garnering applause and gasps in almost equal measure. He added vibrato to notes that he held for 10, sometimes 15 seconds.
If that voice was ragged and weak, if he could no longer find his way to the notes he sought, it would be easy for Bennett to hide behind a big band with lots of brass.
Instead, he has stuck with his longtime quartet of Mike Renzi on piano, Gray Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass and Harold Jones on drums, four guys who accompany Bennett without ever coming close to drowning him out.
Take “The Way You Look Tonight,” which was basically just the singer’s rich voice with minimal acoustic backing by Sargent. Here, Bennett stripped down the arrangement, slowed the tempo, added extra pauses, dropped his instrument to almost a melodic whisper at times, but then brought it back up for an impressively powerful finish: “TOONIIIIIIGHT! TOOONIIIIIIIGHT! TOOOONIIIIIIIIGHT!”
An equally quiet, almost a cappella, take on Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life” and a stirring rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” were highlights, too; at the same time, Bennett proved himself on upbeat numbers such as “I Got Rhythm,” which required a quicker tongue and faster vocal reflexes.
He often jumped too abruptly from one song to the next, and there seemed to be missed opportunities to play off the crowd and be a little looser. His best joke – “Lady Gaga and I did an album called ‘Cheek to Cheek,’ and I’d really like you to buy that album ... because she needs the money” – is a scripted one that he tells in every city.
But at this stage in Bennett’s life, it’s hard to blame him for keeping to a routine. He has closed every show of late by dropping the mic and belting out “Fly Me to the Moon” without any amplification.
If I could do that at age 89 and bring thousands of people to their feet, I wouldn’t change a thing, either.