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Tony glows Bennett brings best of the past with fine blend of pop and jazz

NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. -- If you happen to be an aging rocker/sex symbol, and the trusty old spandex, sculpted mullet and gravelly howls just ain't pulling in the crowds like they used to, then you best take a cue from Rod Stewart and tackle the Great American Songbook.

The timeless beauty, emotional weight and witty phrasing of the material alone will recast you as an older, wiser, more sophisticated artist. Simply by picking supremely great songs and singing them with a horde of guest stars, the dude who sang "Forever Young" made getting old immensely profitable.

But in 2008, the thought of being able to hear tunes like those delivered by one of their original purveyors seems too good to be true.

Which is why Tony Bennett's sold-out, two-night stand in the Niagara Fallsview Casino has fans of vocal music feeling they have the world on a string. (Bennett also will be playing the University at Buffalo on Dec. 14).

Looking and sounding strong, joyful and effortlessly debonair, the 82-year-old legend gave a performance Thursday night that was nothing less than special. After over 50 years of music-making, Bennett's dedication to his signature sound makes AC/DC's seem weak. And it was that obsidian-smooth blend of pop songcraft and jazz combo stylings that emanated through the Avalon Ballroom, led by a voice that bursts with the confidence of Sinatra and the cool of Cole.

Of all the remarkable things about Bennett's career, perhaps the most miraculous is that the guy pretty much always has been relevant. Whether he was busting out hit records like a machine in the late '50s and early '60s, presenting an award with the Red Hot Chili Peppers at their wonderfully juvenile peak, or winning Grammy after Grammy (including three in 2006), Bennett has never been content to just tour the senior circuit and cash paychecks.

While introducing "For Once in My Life," which he sang with its original interpreter, Stevie Wonder, on Bennett's wildly successful "Duets" record, the artist announced he would soon be making an entire album with the R&B genius. I've never anticipated an album from an octogenarian so much.

As a thrilling period to a revelatory sentence, Bennett sang the Motown nugget with power, belting out the triumphantly romantic chorus with the commanding timbre of a much younger fellow. The standing ovation was instant.

Backed by an extraordinary jazz quartet, , the singer led the audience through many of the numbers he made famous. Before breaking into his famous interpretation of Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart," he told the story of his discovery.

"Rosemary Clooney and I were the first American Idols," he quipped, reminiscing about how he finished second to the beloved singer on a '50s TV talent show. That show got Bennett a gig with Pearl Bailey in Greenwich Village -- a show attended by Bob Hope and Jane Russell. Hope plucked young Anthony Dominick Benedetto off the stage and named him Tony Bennett.

To hear him tell stories like these, between top-notch renditions of "I Got Rhythm," "Just In Time," "The Way You Look Tonight" and "They All Laughed," was to feel thankful for his longevity.

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