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Stateside with Rosalea: Cowgirls Aren't In Kasas

Stateside with Rosalea

Even cowgirls aren't in Kansas any more, Toto.

- Tony Bennett and kd lang at the Chronicle Pavilion, Concord CA Wednesday, October 3

The song began with the airy grace of a voice in flight and the audience applauding in recognition of a beloved and familiar line. Then the full impact of the meaning hit, and silence fell: "If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why, can't I?"

If pre-911 USA is a land that we heard of once in a lullaby, Bennett and lang - thankfully - didn't try to make any sentimental capital from that loss. Bennett was wearing a navy blue silk suit with a red pocket handkerchief, but he was wearing that in the publicity photo taken months earlier, and lang was wearing a lightweight black suit and performed in bare feet. One of only two references to the events that had caused the postponement of this concert, which was originally scheduled for 13 September, was lang's dedication of a song to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell - the religious right-wingers who'd declared the US had brought this terror on itself by condoning gay relationships. "My love and I ask little of the world..." is a song that was originally written about an interracial relationship, but applies just as well to any love frowned upon by society.

Not that there were any frowns at Concord on this balmy autumn night. The pavilion is in a natural amphitheatre and can hold 12,500 people in fixed seating and on a lawn up behind the seats. An apron roof soars out over about 1/3 of the seating, so shows go ahead whatever the weather. You can take BART from San Francisco (28 miles away) to Concord, where the local bus company runs a free shuttle right to the ticket gate. My fellow travelers were an interesting slice of humanity - people of an age to have been courting when Bennett was singing in the fifties; members of the rainbow nation coming to see kd, who was one of the first contemporary female singers to come out to mainstream audiences; hip young couples newly turned on to Bennett's style.

Bennett opened with "I've got the world on a string" then brought on lang, with whom he did a duet before leaving the stage so she and her band could shine. My only real acquaintance with lang's music is the soundtrack she did for "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues", which is largely country music, but she did only one song at Concord that was in that mold - "Stampede of Love". Mostly the songs were jazz, blues and ballads delivered with a new assurance and vocal strength born, she acknowledged, from her "continuing education" under the tutelage of Tony Bennett.

Although Bennett is from a blue-collar suburb of New York City - Astoria - he is associated forever with San Francisco because that's where the song says he left his heart. "All over the world people love San Francisco," he said in pointing out that it's the people that make a place what it is and praising San Franciscans for their friendliness and welcoming ways. His heart is really in Astoria, on "just a little street where old friends meet." It's not like he merely sings 'People' - it's obvious he lives it, the warmth of a man who cares pouring out in his voice like moonglow.

Yes he sang that song too, and 'Fly Me to the Moon' and several songs written for Fred Astaire, prefacing 'Steppin' out with my Baby' with: "What say we do one for the MTV crowd?" and some sharp moves. Earlier he'd said he had "so many hits in my young years I was the Britney Spears of my day." And that was no idle boast. Between 1950, when he was signed to Columbia Records, and 1964 he had 24 top-40 hits. Though still working and recording he was largely out of the commercial limelight for the next 20 years, but still receiving critical acclaim. It was in 1986 that he found a whole new generation of fans through appearances on 'Late Night with David Letterman', 'The Simpsons', the 'MTV Video Music Awards' and 'MTV Unplugged'.

The band accompanying him on this tour "assisted me in getting 10 Grammies" - the Ralph Sharon Quartet - and, man, were they cooking with gas. Generous with his acknowledgment of their skills, Bennett had them solo repeatedly - the pianist and drummer getting the most audience applause, as pianists and drummers usually do because it looks harder than guitar and big bass work, though what the strings played wasn't simple either!

"Simple" isn't a word that you link with the kind of songs that Bennett and lang sang. Those songs have lyrics that address the complexity of being a human being - how to make a relationship last, how to deal with disappointment, how to "keep the faith". It was a blessed relief from the blinkered view of the world we're now subjected to on the nightly news, whose accuracy Bennett gently called into question by pointing out that CNN's claim that the Lennon tribute concert last week had been the first show at Radio City Music Hall in NY since the disaster. He and lang had played there for two nights before that.

Those were to have been the final shows on their tour, but they came on out to the City by the Bay for this make-up show and got the added bonus of a just-past-full moon and an audience thirsting more than ever for something they could get their teeth into and appreciate. Bennett is pure bonus, of course, and the final words of the final song he sang perhaps summed up his faith in the future and his idea of what is needed: "the music never ends".

Thanking the audience for coming he concluded: "I want to make sure everybody doesn't stay inside and hide." Bravo!

Lea Barker


Saturday, 6 October 2001

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