Willie Nelson, B.B. King and a few others would be in the mix, but Tony Bennett is close to being in a class by himself.
Though his career has had a few ups and downs, the singer has been a big-time performer for so long that it seems like he’s always been on the short list of vocal greats to be heard in concert.
A younger generation has gotten to know the venerable New Yorker through duet recordings he has made with younger pop music luminaries in recent years.
He was alone with just his backing quartet, however, for Saturday night’s show at the almost-full Merrill Auditorium. And that was more than enough.
Inevitably, the first question that came to mind as the impeccably suited 87-year-old with the Mount Rushmore-worthy profile came onstage was: Can he still get it done?
That concern was answered after about a song and a half when it became clear that his voice and spirit appeared to be nearly as strong as ever.
Bennett then proceeded through about 70 minutes of well-chosen selections that helped to make him famous over a long career. Many of the tunes were taken through only one verse, so the concert was packed with hits.
The Gershwins figured prominently on an up-tempo “They All Laughed” and even faster “I Got Rhythm.” Time was also a theme on tunes such as the classic “Just In Time,” the melancholy “Maybe This Time” and a very touching “Once Upon a Time.” Bennett often employed his skill at taking things seemingly effortlessly from nearly a whisper to an auditorium-filling crescendo.
His band was as tight-swinging a group as has visited Portland in quite some time. They found a friendly mid-tempo groove behind the singer on “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” and easily slipped into a Latin feel for “The Shadow of Your Smile,” during which Bennett demonstrated some subtle dance moves to the delight of the crowd.
Guitarist Gray Sargent figured prominently on several tunes, including “The Way You Look Tonight” and another standout for the singer, “But Beautiful.” Pianist Mike Renzi also shone on an early Duke Ellington medley and later during an instrumental break on “Maybe This Time.” Marshall Wood on bass and Harold Jones on drums rounded out the band.
In introducing “Good Life,” Bennett noted that he’ll soon have an album out featuring duets with Lady Gaga. But it wasn’t long thereafter that he brought everyone back to an earlier era in music history. After applause of recognition, the crowd seemed to be holding its breath to hear every last note of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
The veteran vocalist thanked all, put the microphone down and sang “Fly Me to the Moon,” unamplified but still with impressive strength and style. Another of the several standing ovations of the evening followed as the singer finished up one more fine concert in his incredible career.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.