The recorded voice of Frank Sinatra told the fans who packed Atlanta Symphony Hall that they were about to witness “the greatest singer in the world,” and out strolled spry, 90-year-old Tony Bennett.
He blew a few kisses toward the balcony, made a sweeping gesture toward his crackerjack quartet and rolled immediately into “Watch What Happens.”
It was a fitting title for the next 85 minutes, as Bennett charmed the enraptured crowd with a set list of standards that demonstrated he can still unleash a wallop of a note (evidenced at the end of “They All Laughed”) and be defined by his distinctive phrasing.
The staccato punctuations that have become a hallmark of Alec Baldwin’s affectionate imitations were evident in Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and Irving Berlin’s “Steppin’ Out with My Baby,” which was anchored by the stellar upright bass work of Marshall Wood.
Bennett coolly unfurled Duke Ellington’s “(In My) Solitude,” his right hand tucked into the pants pocket of his impeccably tailored, dark suit, his voice rising to a crescendo as song’s end.
At the opening of “This Is All I Ask,” Bennett joked that he forgot the first line of the song, which is understandable but also remarkable because unlike artists decades younger, he didn’t appear to be using a TelePrompTer.
The last time Bennett performed in Atlanta – July 2015 – it was a sweat-fest at Chastain Park Amphitheatre with his muse, Lady Gaga. The pair endeared with their obvious – and unlikely – camaraderie, and it no doubt earned Bennett a new pack of fans who never would have known that the Hal Kemp classic “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” was the first song Bennett ever recorded in 1950.
He’s been celebrating a career renaissance for almost 25 years, one, if you recall, that was instigated by his son Danny’s brilliant idea to showcase his father on “MTV Unplugged.”
His influence as a song stylist is vast, touching singers ranging from Rufus Wainwright to k.d. lang, and on Tuesday night, Bennett showcased a couple of doozies.
His version of Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” read like a tender recitation rather than the giddy Sinatra rendition heard at a million wedding receptions, then segued into a sprightly piano solo by Billy Stritch. Conversely, Bennett sparked the usually melancholy “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” with a swinging backbeat provided by Harold Jones, stripping the song of its resigned tone.
Although Bennett didn’t talk much between songs, he occasionally smacked his palm against the top of the piano and pointed at Stritch with a “that was a good one!” grin and, during “The Shadow of Your Smile,” he pulled out a few dance moves out of the spotlight while guitarist Gray Sargent unloaded another nimble solo.
Bennett earned several deserved ovations during the show – after climbing the vocal scale at the close of “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” and, predictably, for his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
But it was his finale of “Fly Me to the Moon,” performed sans microphone and with only Sargent’s sparse guitar as accompaniment, that catapulted the audience to its feet for an extended period.
Bennett took several curtain calls, including one with his daughter Antonia, who opened the show with a handful of standards, waving and patting his heart in gratitude.
The he spun around one more time and strutted into the shadows – once a boss, always a boss.
MORE PHOTOS FROM THE SHOW