BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
There’s a snarky line from Judd Nelson’s character in “The Breakfast Club” – recently resurrected for promos on SiriusXM’s ‘80s channel – directed at a school official:
“Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?”
It’s meant to be an insult, of course. Another jab at the eternal un-hipness of Manilow because…why, exactly? Oh, right. Because at the height of his popularity in the ‘70s and ‘80s, his style of soft rock was a snicker-inducing contrast to the punk, prog rock and flutterings of New Wave music of the era.
Looks as if four-plus decades later, someone is still having the last laugh.
Manilow’s music has endured because – as he pointed out at his nearly sold-out Fox Theatre show on Thursday – it contains an essential element absent in much of current music: melody.
It also still has the ability to provoke zigzagging emotions – the cheery cheesiness of “Can’t Smile Without You,” the throbbing excitement of “New York City Rhythm,” the deep melancholy of “Even Now” – and Manilow knows it.
Two years ago, the 74-year-old musician embarked on his “One Last Time!” tour, ostensibly his final bow on the road (my review of his performance at Infinite Energy Arena was a literal goodbye letter to him).
But people’s feelings change – which is maybe why you shouldn’t put the word “last” in the anything – and Manilow had reasons to return to the stage for sporadic dates.
In April he released a new album, a love letter to his Brooklyn roots christened “This is My Town: Songs of New York.” He also publicly confirmed his longtime relationship (and marriage) to Garry Kief. And, as he noted at the start of Thursday’s two-hour hit parade, he thought people might want a break from all of the “yelling and hollering” about our divided country.
Indeed, Manilow seemed looser and happier, even moving more fluidly across the stage during the perky “Bandstand Boogie” and casually slipping a hand in his pants pocket while singing “Looks Like We Made It.”
He clowned with his expert 10-piece band and three backup singers during a Latin-styled jam on “New York City Rhythm,” spoke passionately about his Manilow Music Project (“Music will change a young person’s life,” he said, a point that cannot be emphasized enough) and humble-bragged through deserved ovations after hitting show-stopping notes at the close of “Even Now” and “I Made it Through the Rain.”
Manilow is a practiced showman, and for those who have seen him before, there are plenty of well-worn, self-deprecating staples.
“I was the Justin Bieber of the ‘70s – ask your mother,” he quipped, again (but yes, it’s still amusing). There was the expected joke when the cover of his first album was shown on a video screen about it being released “in 1821.” And fans still seem to relish the clip of a very, very young Clive Davis introducing Manilow on “The Midnight Special,” his shaggy hair falling over his eyes as he croons “Mandy,” which leads to current Manilow sneaking back onstage to pick up behind the piano for the second verse.
But the presence of fresh material allowed him to make a few tweaks to the show. The new album’s title track, “This is My Town,” bursts with the kind of simple, yet heartfelt, lyrics that make the song well-suited for a NYC tourism campaign. He also, as he does on record, meshed the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil classic “On Broadway” with “New York City Rhythm,” for a fulfilling valentine to his hometown.
Fanilows accepted these new additions graciously, but saved their deepest swooning for the vivid songcraft of “Weekend in New England” and a tender “Somewhere Down the Road” (one of the few times during the show that Manilow’s voice cracked).
Then, of course, the green glow sticks that the audience waved sporadically throughout the show erupted in full illumination for “I Write the Songs,” which featured the Gwinnett Young Singers adding a layer of lushness, and the giddy, goofy fun of “Copacabana.”
So, was this Manilow’s true victory lap? If so, he went out proving once again that it’s not only hip to be square, but it makes for quite a respectable career.