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Frank Sinatra -- chairman of the board, sultan of swoon, leader of the rat pack -- is singing in high style again.
In an hour-long concert at the Kennedy Center last night, Sinatra unveiled wonderfully renewed and focused energies, and the impeccable song selection that seemed to desert him in the '60s.
It was a night of soft-spun ballads and irresistible swingers, a celebration that did little to damage the compelling Sinatra myth.
The night was something of a command performance, as well, with old pals President Reagan and Nancy Reagan and a dozen luminaries crowding the presidential box or scattered around the Concert Hall. Halfway through the concert, Sinatra toasted the First Couple (with whiskey), adding a second toast "to the confusion of our enemies," in this case the press in general, and gossip columnists in particular.
At 67, "The Voice" is more "the voice" now: Sinatra has lowered his range a bit, to a point of comfort, familiarity and control. A soft rasp tends to creep in on the ballads, his pitch tends to waver a bit and he seems less able to shape the highs and lows.
A large, brassy orchestra covered these shortcomings on the uptempo songs, while Sinatra tended to trade on them in the mellow ballads. It was a give and take that persisted through the show, Sinatra forcefully belting "I Get a Kick Out of You" or riding out Don Costa's sassy arrangement of "Come Rain or Come Shine," then confessing the weight of time on Gordon Jenkins "This Is All I Ask," his voice bourbon-smooth, the passion locked into each poignant lyric.
There are inevitable problems for a voice that's been worked for 40 years, and to compensate, Sinatra has invested his singing with a vibrant warmth, an instinct for the nuances of a lyric that was often subsumed to his hip, tough-guy demeanor. This is a surprisingly mellow Sinatra, one who seems in total control of himself, if not his voice.
Sinatra's attack was crisp, his pace effortless, his articulation flawless; he worked the audience and the orchestra with an old assurance. There have been few singers who can get as intimate with a lyric, who can caress a melody line as Sinatra does. That ability to turn cliche's into revelations was often obscured in the last decade, but it seems back in place on this go-round.
Among those attending the concert were 300 senior citizens who act as "foster grandparents" to needy children--a project supported by Mrs. Reagan. The White House said Sinatra gave up his profits for the seats, which were purchased for $30,000 by the Beverly Corp., a nursing home firm, and donated to the foster grandparent program.
During intermission, Reagan threw a reception for about 30 people. After the show, the Reagans stopped backstage to visit with Sinatra. Photographers were not permitted to take pictures.
Halfway through his show, just after making his toast to the Reagans, Sinatra said Washington has "a little gossip now and then, but how can we live without those idiots?" Sinatra said he hoped "they are all going to break their typewriters or sew up their mouths."
Sinatra's press barbs have long been a part of his act. But last night, besides leaving the full house a bit confused, the barbs seemed dulled by the singer's good will and affection. Sinatra is scheduled to play before three more sold out houses this week.
Last night, there were no accommodations, no polyester pop songs with hooks where melodies are needed. Of the 14 songs Sinatra performed, only a dreadful and underehearsed "Satisfy Me One More Time" and the soporific theme to "Best Friends" intruded on the classic repertoire inspired by Tin Pan Alley and Broadway.
Sinatra was much more comfortable with songs like the opener, "I've Got the World On a String," "The Lady Is A Tramp" and a new song, "Here's to The Band," a somewhat maudlin but brightly brassy kicker that's a mix between "My Way" and "New York, New York." Sinatra skipped "My Way," although its half-cocky, half-resigned message was implied in everything he sang.
Of course, "New York, New York" is the perfect song for Sinatra, not only for its suggestions of being "king of the hill" and "the top of the heap," but for its triumphant image as an often-maligned city that is undeniably unique. Just like many people wouldn't want to live anywhere else, many songs wouldn't want to be sung by anyone else than Francis Albert Sinatra.
All in all, it was a very good night.