Bette Midler had the crowd guffawing at her spoken introduction. “The next song is one everyone wants to sing along with. Please don’t,” she urged Sunday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. “There’s only room for one diva in this hockey rink. That would be me.”
But instead of singing, Midler prattled on about iPhones and taking a photo of the Apple flag at company headquarters in California. Then she finally caught herself. “Did I sing the ballad?”
Um, no. At times on Sunday, Midler’s timing was off. She occasionally rushed through her comedic lines like American Pharoah trying to get to the finish line. When she sang fast songs, her flow wasn’t always fast enough or her enunciation clear enough. But when it came to the ballads, boy, did she sing them.
When she finally got around to singing “The Rose” after that don’t-sing-along intro, she disarmed with that gleam in her eye and that grin on her face — and then she poured her heart and soul into it, standing in a long red-sequined gown. Talk about your star turn. Talk about your goose-bump moment. When she held her right hand high in dramatic lighting during the final line, there were more than 10,000 pairs of eyes watering that rose.
Midler wasn’t done. In fact, she was just getting started. The ensuing “From a Distance” proved she can convince with her small voice as much as she does with her big one. Then she tore into “Stay with Me,” belting it like a deep-voiced Broadway blues before stopping mid-song to talk about how the piece has changed its meaning for her. When she sang it in the movie “The Rose” in 1979, it was about unrequited love, she explained, but now she sees it as being about the important people in her life who have passed on.
Next, Midler, with her excellent band behind a curtain, encored with “Wind Beneath My Wings,” becoming so emotional that she had to wipe away her own tears.
For the previous hour and a half, the Divine Miss M had sold schmaltz, shtick and silliness. But if you stripped away the jokes, costumes, dancing and skits — all of which were highly entertaining — you realized that she’s also about songs. And it wasn’t just during the home stretch.
Midway through the program, Midler delivered a four-song set that not only showed her smart taste in material but her interpretive acumen. The old Yiddish ditty “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” was all about pure four-part group vocalizing, a harmony-happy swing tune. Turning TLC’s 1995 hip-hop pop hit “Waterfalls” into a husky-voiced ballad was both a savvy move and a wonderful opportunity for Midler to be a heartfelt singer, not merely an actress who sings.
The same could be said for Midler’s readings of Leonard Cohen’s solitary and dramatic “Everybody Knows” and Randy Newman’s ironic commentary “I Think It’s Going to Rain.” She truly covers the full range of the emotional spectrum in an evening.
Midler misfired on the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden,” which felt too middle-of-the-road, especially after seeing Mick Jagger rock TCF Bank Stadium last week.
Like Jagger, Midler, 69, seems ageless, though she cracked lots of jokes about aging. Like Cher, Midler takes on a persona onstage. She’s a brassy, bawdy, bold, campy, witty and proudly off-color broad in concert. Amy Schumer has nothing on her.
Of course, Midler told plenty of jokes about sex. She insisted that if she had filmed her sex life, she’d have been a billionaire by now. Then she proceeded to show photos of herself under the covers with, among others, Richard Nixon, Vladimir Putin, Chris Christie, Bruce Jenner and Tom Brady, of whom she said: “I was the first to suggest that he might want to deflate his balls.”
Midler dragged out her old vaudevillian character, Sophie, a salute to Sophie Tucker, for some Borscht-Belt jokes that make you wince and then fight back laughter. Missing from her comic repertoire was perhaps her most cherished concert character, Delores Delago, a mermaid in a wheelchair who did synchronized swimming with three backup mermaids in wheelchairs. Midler offered a video salute to Delago, ending with a still image emblazoned with 1980-2014.
But, thankfully, Midler presses on in concert. Although this was her first tour in 10 years, she still left the same impression she had last time through town: They don’t make ‘em like Bette Midler anymore. Actually, maybe they never did.