DURHAM -- Friday night, it took Tony Bennet exactly two songs to go for the kill. He had strode onstage at the Durham Performing Arts Center, looking and sounding sharp as ever as he took up the Great American Songbook. Song number two was "They All Laughed," by one George Gershwin.
"They all laughed at us and how," Bennett sang. "But ho ho ho -- who's got the last laugh now?"
Then he did a little soft-shoe routine that ended with a twirl. He came out of it in a bit of a crouch, palms out, head cocked and a twinkle in his eye. It was a spry gesture that screamed, How ya like me now?, and the crowd roared. Sixty-plus years in show business, and the next crowd Bennet leaves unslain will be his first.
At age 86, Bennett is a remarkable specimen. Unavoidably, he's lost a good chunk of the voice he once had. But the decades have not dimmed Bennett's charisma, or robbed him of his sense of style or timing. Over time, those songs about romance between man and woman have become metaphors for romance between singer and audience. Time does not appear to have dimmed the fire on either side.
In a concession to age, most of the songs Bennett sang Friday night were truncated down to a verse or two, which saved his voice and allowed him to cover more material in an hour-long set. In the mark of a true star, he was somehow able to evoke what he once was, performing in such a way that you could extrapolate out to past glories.
None of which is to diminish what he did do Friday night, which was pretty glorious in its own right. As he demonstrated time and again, Bennett could still bop, belt and most of all swing, hitting those soaring crescendos with a majestic grace unmatched in popular song. And he also still has a way with a between-song anecdote, telling stories about Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, Rosemary Clooney and other stars of yesteryear.
The set's two-dozen songs included most of what you'd want to hear -- "Cold, Cold Heart," "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "The Best Is Yet to Come," "For Once In My Life," "My Funny Valentine" and, of course, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Even Bennett was clapping after that one, despite a flubbed lyric.
Bennett could have been forgiven if he'd spent time hiding behind his band (and the piano-guitar-drums-bass quartet was excellent). But he did not make anything easy on himself. "The Way You Look Tonight" was stripped down to just voice and guitar, completely unadorned, and darned if it wasn't about the most moving, emotionally satisfying thing I've heard in a year or two. Anyone in the room who wasn't misting up has no soul.
The absolute masterstroke, however, came with the encore-closing "Fly Me to the Moon," which also featured just Gray Sargent's guitar. As Sargent softly played, Bennett put down his microphone to sing unamplified, making an intimate moment even moreso. A hush fell over the house as the crowd strained to hear. It was worth the effort.
Fill my heart with song, let me sing forever more!
We're lucky to be sharing the planet with him.