It's especially reassuring, in these uncertain times, to be reminded that some things stay the same. This was no truer than on Saturday night as legendary vocalist Tony Bennett paid an appreciated visit to the University at UB Center for the Arts.
The 90-year-old was the guest of this year's annual Ronald McDonald House holiday fundraiser concert, an always-classy affair. Liza Minnelli's visit a few years back still rings bells in my ears. Bennett returns after having played this event in 2008. This engagement was simply magnificent.
It's hard to imagine Bennett disappointing at a microphone. He's one of the very last legends still holding strong, let alone recording albums, let alone selling out venues, let alone alive. He's our quintessential American gentleman, with his slick, cool, unbothered presence. His onstage persona, as I assume he is offstage, is chill and relaxed but always on the mark. You are his guest, and he is delighted to be in your company. You don't go see Tony Bennett; he sees you.
With practically the entire 20th century's songbook of standards in his pocket, Bennett's repertoire is envious. Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington are just a few of the songwriters whose work he has been associated with. Saturday's set was a beginner's course in music appreciation.
He gives Ellington's "(In My) Solitude," a deflating balloon of a tune, its last breath before his expert quartet gives it a jump. Minnelli's "It Amazes Me," too. These solemn tunes are perhaps his calling card, ever wispy and lonesome, but he is just as chill on a pick-up.
"This Is All I Ask" brought some knowing chuckles from the adoring audience. In it, Bennett sings about his wishes as he "approaches the prime" of his life. It's a sweet and charming song, and quite cute.
As for classics, Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" was right up there with the best of them, as was a simple "The Way You Look Tonight." The staple "Steppin' Out With My Baby" was a jumpy, simmering joy. "Sing You Sinners" was another trip. Of course, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" does what it does best. The room fell in love all over again.
Everyone should hear these live, or ought to have. They feel new. This is his gift, some 60 years at the helm of a timeless, ageless career. He still sings like he's in the process of discovery: a little bit hesitant, with a little disbelief. This is where we find ourselves, though, and from where he croons. He reaches for notes and, these days at least, hits many of them. But even when he's off, he's never far away. It's his reach that we love, regardless of the landing.
A surprise reciprocation comes at one point, as if we were worthy: Buffalo was the first city he ever played, he tells us, in promotion of his 1952 debut album, "Because of You." He thanked us for always being there for him and his extended family.
On behalf of the Queen City, Mr. Bennett, the feeling is mutual and the pleasure all ours.