The way he effortlessly charms an audience, the way he consistently favors the likes of Berlin, Gershwin and Ellington, the way he elegantly glides through half a century of recordings -- no, you still can't take that away from Tony Bennett. And as for the 78-year-old legend's vocal artistry -- and there's no other word for it -- it remains one of pop music's great marvels.
Collaborating with a fine quintet featuring pianist Lee Musiker at Wolf Trap on Monday night, Bennett breezed through a 90-minute performance. But he didn't make it easy for himself by avoiding the climactic modulations and brassy flourishes that cap many of his biggest hits. "I Wanna Be Around," "If I Ruled the World," "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" -- the evening was laced with favorites that Bennett still interprets with great care, ever mindful of phrasing, dynamics and the composers' intentions.
Yet nothing seemed more nonchalant than "Steppin' Out With My Baby" -- Bennett even tossed in a soft-shoe pirouette or two -- and there were some unexpected diversions as well: a rendering of "O Sole Mio" in swing time; a duet on Hank Williams's "Cold, Cold Heart," beautifully embellished by Gray Sargent's finger-style guitar work.
Did it matter that there were a few blemishes, too -- a briefly flubbed lyric, a throat-clearing pause, some wavering tones? Hardly. Such minor flaws did nothing to diminish the pleasure of hearing Bennett display his signature blend of drama and finesse -- and, in the bargain, make a cheering audience feel so young.
-- Mike Joyce
Elefant and Ambulance Ltd.
Elefant and Ambulance Ltd., who shared the stage Monday night at the Black Cat, seemed in advance to be an exceptionally compatible double bill. Both bands, after all, are New York outfits that draw inventively on arty and punky '60s and '70s rock. In practice, however, the two groups failed to achieve equilibrium -- not because of their music but because Ambulance Ltd. arrived too late to perform a full set.
The headlining Elefant is a quartet whose three instruments -- not counting Diego Garcia's voice -- achieve a remarkably full sound. Garcia's theatrical vocals, which echo the delivery of various glitter and goth icons, were at the center of the band's style, but Mod's versatile guitar was no less remarkable. Supplemented by various electronic effects, the guitar was visceral yet elegant, and capable of being either scrappy or epic. Yet it never overwhelmed such songs as "Bokkie" and "Make Up," in which Garcia celebrated giddy infatuation as if he'd just invented it.
Hitting the stage before Elefant -- and almost an hour late -- Ambulance Ltd. played only five songs and less than 25 minutes. Much like the evening's other act, the quintet is capable of quick, graceful shifts between chiming and churning passages. Songs such as "Stay Where You Are" had a hint of pre-rock melodic traditions, yet incorporated the modal surge of such forebears as the Velvet Underground and the Feelies. The locomotion had barely begun, however, when the band had to apply the brakes.
-- Mark Jenkins
Jim White took the stage at the Rams Head on Monday wearing a trucker's cap with a DuPont logo and lugging a plywood board full of circuits reminiscent of a hobbyist's crystal radio set from the 1950s. He and the four members of his band proceeded to whip up a glorious collection of sound built of musical spare parts but anchored by the enigmatic figure of White himself.
Fresh off a stint as Lucinda Williams's opening act, White told the cozy crowd: "We're gonna have a nice, easy show tonight. . . . If we fall asleep, just wake us up." There was no danger of anyone dozing through White's sometimes apocalyptic brand of country-tinged rock. Although he started with the occasionally mellow "Static on the Radio" (which, he noted, evoked Sergio Mendes) and proceeded through the country weeper "That Girl From Brownsville Texas," by his third song, the lanky, chatty Floridian and his band -- with a subtle assist from the sound equipment on the board at his feet -- had conjured up a fury with "A Perfect Day to Chase Tornados," featuring several members' moaning and wailing strings and White's ominous growl.
Sometimes it was hard to tell when White was serious. When he talked about his beloved 5-year-old daughter, yes; when he claimed he had foil in his hat to deflect the spy rays, no. In between was a rich, evocative and groovy no man's land, reflected in his finest songs. Perhaps he explained his mysteries in a final honky-tonker: "God was drunk when he made me . . . but I forgive Him."
-- Pamela Murray Winters