Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, April 27, 2007

I was trying to book my band into a bakery where we can play without amplification, as part of a monthly music stroll in the "up-and-coming" (read: gentrifying) neighborhood where I work. The booker likes us but she said no, the band is too big for that room, even unamplified. So she offered us a date in a bar across the street from the bakery, which is fine, and I'll take it -- but I'd rather be in the bakery. I was really hoping for a "folk concert" setting, not a "rock bar" setting. I really like playing unamplified -- the sounds of the lovely instruments and voices, sans electricity -- which won't happen in the bar. But I'll be happy to have the gig. It's months away; I'll update.

* * *

It's interesting how "Unplugged" has almost become a genre. Until the other day the only one I'd ever heard was Nirvana's, which is stellar. But then on Jody Rosen's recommendation I picked up Tony Bennett's entree in the series. I like Bennett, especially late-period Bennett, but I'd resisted this because I'd assayed its cover and judged it pandering.

How wrong I was.

It is pandering, but not in a bad way. Most of his albums of the last 10 or 15 years or so have been tributes -- a Berlin album (which I have on vinyl); tributes to the repertories of Sinatra, Astaire, and Billie Holiday; an Ellington album (which my mom gave to me). The ones I've heard all have wonderful stuff.

But on MTV, he wasn't tied to concept, and the prospect of reaching beyond his usual audience sharpened his focus. He played some of his '50s and '60s hits ("Rags to Riches," "The Good Life," "I Left My Heart in San Francisco"). He dipped into obscurities. He reached out.

And he wailed.

Many times on the album he leaps from a croon to a shout with no transition, a wild yelp of emotional unexpectedness -- just like emotions. And it's tremendous. Whoever mastered the album didn't compress the dynamic range into nonexistence. The sudden dynamic shifts drop like cannonballs off the high dive when your back is turned from the pool. Boom -- splash -- and your emotions are all wet.

k. d. lang and Elvis Costello guest-duet on a song apiece. k. d. sings sweet harmony and splits the bridges with Bennett. Her solo spots are juicily virtuoso without upstaging the star or over-belting. Elvis can't keep up -- he croons like Mel Torme without the velvet. But it's a nice gesture, part of the rock-audience outreach, and it's not terrible.

* * *

My favorite Bennett performance is on his Sinatra tribute album, a song I'd only heard Judy Garland sing, "Last Night When We Were Young," music by Harold Arlen, words by Yip Harburg.

Last night
when we were young,
love was a star,
a song unsung;
life was so new,
so real, so bright --
ages ago. Last night.

the world is old.
You flew away
And time grew cold.
Where is that star
That shone so bright
ages ago, last night?

To think that spring had depended
on merely this,
a look, a kiss.
To think that something so splendid
could slip away
in one little day-

And now
let's reminisce
and recollect the sighs and the kisses,
the arms that clung
when we were young
last night.

Garland's version is a tragic aria about the seemingly boundless expandability of time, how yesterday can seem like forever ago if circumstances suddenly shift. And it's gorgeous.

Bennett sings it as a wistful, tender elegy -- quietly, quietly -- like a widower musing on his spouse of many years. And the song becomes about the seemingly boundless collapsibility of time, where something that happened decades ago can seem like last night. And it's gorgeous.

An amazing song.

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