We got lucky and had tickets for both of the Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga shows at the Royal Albert Hall last Monday and Tuesday – then we got a bit unlucky when the second of the two was cancelled about a quarter of an hour before showtime due to Tony being unwell. However, on balance and all things considered, we got really, really extremely lucky to have witnessed Monday’s breathtaking and heartbreaking show. Although we were in the circle of the hall (which is way up high) and had a restricted view, the power of the performers could not be diminished by any distance from them.
Bennett came onstage to a recording of his hero Frank Sinatra praising Tony Bennett (“he’ll tear the seats out…”), acknowledged the applause, then his quartet and the orchestra and introduced “the most popular singer in the world – Lady Gaga!” A hell of an opening, but for the next two hours each of the pair lived up to the encomia.
The order of the billing was reflected in the structure of the show, which was very much a Tony Bennett show with delighted support from Lady Gaga. The chemistry between the two is astonishing, two giants of music on the same stage, somehow adding up to way more than the sum of the parts, each awed and a little in love with the art and craft of the other. Gaga is also extremely funny, a hard thing to pull off in music and something with which she is rarely credited. At one point, she scampered (that is the right word) up the stairs at the side of the stalls to duet from on high (“I’m over here Tony!”) creating one of the evening’s so many beautiful moments.
Tony was in fine form, much better than any performance I’ve seen by him in the last twenty years. He repeated the coda of “For Once In My Life” (“I have someone who needs me”) with pointed gusto, welcoming Gaga’s return to the stage after one of his solo spots; his reading of “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” concluded with, well, I don’t quite know what, some sort of emphatic repetition of the closing “the music never ends,” not quite a crescendo nor a desperate plea…I was so looking forward to being ready for it on the second night so I could listen more carefully. I’ve never heard anything like the way he sang these few notes.
Gaga’s solos were of course stunning. I’d have to say, Lady Gaga in a pink satin dress singing “La Vie en Rose” in French in the Albert Hall and then getting a standing ovation must be the gayest thing I’ve ever seen. Pretty close for camp value was her rendition of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” in a spangly catsuit. However, as I’ve suggested, the real magic of the evening was in the couple’s duets. Their rendition of Burke and Van Heusen’s “But Beautiful” was well, beautiful, Gaga leaning on the piano next to Tony as they stood, rapt, watching Gray Sargent take his guitar solo, love swirling around the stage and through the hall.
The evening concluded with numerous bows after the closing number (none of that encore nonsense, they’d given it all already,) and we left walking on air and amazed at what had happened on the venerable stage that night.
We had better tickets for the second night, but that was not to be; although it was a savage disappointment that the show was cancelled, it was a relief to learn a few hours later that Tony’s health issue was not too serious. (It was also a relief that we’d not just bought fresh drinks at the Albert Hall’s prices…)
But we’d had a little bonus earlier that evening. Having arrived at the hall early to view its extensive display of photographs of previous performers, we wandered alone and were delighted to hear Gaga rehearsing “La Vie en Rose,” noting that she was by no means walking through it, this was a proper performance. She finished the song, they ran through one line again until everyone was happy, then the band and orchestra rehearsed some outros a few times. I guess it shows that even as late as 6:30, the show was still going to go ahead.
A different sort of show went ahead for her, apparently she did a half-hour set at Ronnie Scott’s later that evening.
Tony and Gaga cannot be estimated highly enough for what they have done with this music and its presentation to a new audience. The Cheek to Cheek album is the embodiment of this and a remains a wonderful thing for them to have given the world.