Just about three minutes into his concert at the University at Buffalo on Saturday night, Irish tenor Colm Wilkinson took the opportunity to dazzle us, to show off exactly what his amazing voice can do.
Halfway into his first song, “Music of the Night,” the singer hit a high note on the word “soar” and held it for a long time, putting on a display that 99 percent of the world’s vocalists would never be able to duplicate.
It was the first of many stunning moments in Wilkinson’s two-hour show before a very appreciative audience that filled most of UB’s Center for the Performing Arts.
This was a remarkable performance by a 72-year-old singer, who – to use football jargon – was playing injured.
Calling himself “an old Irish cripple” at one point, Wilkinson revealed that he recently suffered a painful back injury that made it difficult for him to stand and sing.
He played about one-quarter of his songs seated in a chair, with an acoustic guitar.
“The good news is, we’re here and we’re doing the gig,” Wilkinson said. “These days, my back goes out more often than I do.”
And the other good news is, his bad back had little or no effect on Wilkinson’s voice or his ability to put songs across. The man who became famous worldwide for his stage performances in “Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables” certainly didn’t sound like an old Irish cripple.
The music from his famous stage shows was well represented at the UB show, but there were also plenty of delightful surprises.
He led his band through a blistering country version of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and made a powerful statement about the need for unity on U2’s anthemic “One.” He and his backup singers, Blythe Wilson and Kelly Holiff, paid a beautiful musical tribute to the recently departed Leonard Cohen with a gorgeous version of “Hallelujah.”
There was a wonderful medley of three Beatles’ songs, including a heartbreaking reading of “She’s Leaving Home.” There was an elegant “Some Enchanted Evening,” two great songs from “Man of La Mancha” and a soaring “Somewhere” from West Side Story.
In one of the show’s most poignant moments, Wilksonson talked about his childhood, growing up in a small home outside Dublin with nine brothers and sisters and two parents who loved music. He dedicated “My Mother’s Song,” to his late mother, who was a fine vocalist.
“When I was a boy, I heard my mother sing, and it changed my life forever,” Wilkinson sang.
Wilkinson, who now lives just a couple hours from us in Toronto, was backed by a superb seven-piece band and two talented singers. Married since 1970 and the father of four, he has told interviewers that he protects his voice by avoiding alcohol, cigarettes and all kinds of drugs, and he once told The Buffalo News the water he drinks during his shows “must be room temperature.” Clean living works very well for him.
It is a rare treat to watch a singer who is also an accomplished actor. Wilkinson makes expert use of his hands and facial expressions to tell the story of every song.
Toward the end of the show, he delivered a rendition of “Imagine” that would have made John Lennon very, very proud. Then, he put on his Jean Valjean jacket and sang “Bring Him Home,” the tearjerker song from “Les Mis” that may be the song for which Wilkinson is most known.
Before “Bring Him Home,” he told a story about deciding to end the song with a very difficult C-sharp note. He said it was hard for him to reach, but said he would try again Saturday night.
He hit the note perfectly at the end of the song, and said simply, “That’s the C-sharp.”
That brought the house down.