Tony Bennett had ’em long before hello.
He had the fans at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis the moment they bought their tickets, because they knew they would be witnessing an American musical treasure — the last great singer from the pre-rock era, a crooner so cool that Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse and Carrie Underwood duetted with him.
The crowd Sunday greeted Bennett with a standing ovation after Frank Sinatra, via recording, introduced him as “the greatest singer in the world.”
Ever dapper in a light sportcoat, dark slacks and deep blue necktie, Bennett just beamed while clapping his appreciation for the welcome. Without a word, he clutched his microphone with two hands and got right to work on “Watch What Happens,” a Michel LeGrand tune from the 1964 film “Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”
Bennett’s voice was a little craggy, but he knows how to sell a song with warmth, personality and a smile. Turn on the old-school cool.
After 70 years in the business, Bennett relies on a few tricks when his voice is not right. Maintain a conversational tone, depend on immaculate phrasing, chuckle when a lyric amuses you, go “da-da-da” when you forget the words, soften the dynamics when your tone isn’t what you want, cut bad notes short and kill ’em with those closing crescendos.
As the crisp 67-minute set carried on, Bennett’s voice got smoother and more musical, doing more exclaiming than shouting on those big finishes. Plus, let’s be honest, the crowd was prepared to cut the singer a little slack because he’ll turn 93 on Saturday.
No need to do that on Duke Ellington’s “(In My) Solitude,” which Bennett ended by pleading with the Lord to send “back, back, back, BACK my love,” closing with a perfectly imperfect pained final note.
Other highlights included “It Amazes Me,” in which he truly seemed surprised that he was loved; the gorgeous voice-and-guitar reading of “But Beautiful”; a reassuringly romantic “For Once in My Life” (which he recorded before Stevie Wonder did); the seductive “The Way You Look Tonight,” which he finished with a triumphant self-hug, and the de facto theme song “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” (key lyrics: “I may not see forever” and “the music never ends”) with him stretching “never” as if it had five syllables before belting a big Broadway finish.
Who cares if the ever-radiant Bennett didn’t say much, save for an occasional “thank you” and shouting out the names of his excellent musicians — drummer Harold Jones, bassist Marshall Wood, pianist Tom Ranier and guitarist Gray Sargent — when they took solos.
Who cares if Bennett didn’t pirouette during “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” like he used to do? (He did offer mime-like dance steps a couple of times during the concert.)
Who cares if he didn’t do his usual closing bit of singing the final passages of “Fly Me to the Moon” without a microphone? With a mic was just fine.
Bennett’s 23-tune set list was similar to his other recent Twin Cities appearances: Selections from the Great American Songbook by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer and others.
Since his Renaissance started nearly 30 years ago (he’s picked up 17 Grammys since then), Bennett has helped reintroduce this material to today’s modern music listeners. And Sunday’s audience — heavy on baby boomers, along with plenty of Gen-Xers and a smattering of millennials — responded enthusiastically.
A few exuberant women occasionally shouted their love for Bennett. One even responded to a lyric in “Fly Me to the Moon” requesting a kiss by proclaiming: “I will kiss you, Tony.”
Ever the gentleman, Bennett didn’t respond with a verbal comment. But once, during “The Way You Look Tonight,” he turned toward an adoring female voice in the darkness of the theater as if to sing directly to her.
Despite a three-minute standing ovation at the end, Bennett didn’t do an encore. But he took four curtain calls, blew three kisses, offered two thumbs up and delivered one final salute as his band continued to play on, even after the curtain closed.
He had ’em at goodbye, too.