Keely Smith may well become the first of the great adult pop singers since Tony Bennett to break through to the MTV generation.
After a long stretch of being under-appreciated, Smith and her late husband-partner-mentor Louis Prima have enjoyed a renaissance in interest. Awareness is so high that Concord Records is releasing Smith’s fine new album, “Swing Swing Swing,” a tribute to Prima, the famed New Orleans trumpeter, singer, writer and showman.
Even more important, she just completed a five-city tour, playing rock and blues joints rather than the cabarets and jazz clubs where you would expect to find a star of her generation.
After playing Bimbo’s in S.F. and House of Blues locations in Los Angeles, Chicago and New Orleans, Smith finished Wednesday at Irving Plaza, a rather grungy downtown establishment that suited her perfectly, as this appears to be the audience she’s going after: young rock ‘n’ rollers who’ve discovered swing through such latter-day carbon copies as David Lee Roth, Brian Setzer and various combustible-squirrel-daddy-mamas.
No amount of preparation by such garage bands with saxophones could have prepared them for the raw power of the real thing, the Queen of Swing (as she is now aptly billed). Smith, singing the Prima repertoire, appeared with a fully outfitted 15-piece big band (in fine orchestrations by her son-in-law and pianist Dennis Michaels), propelled by powerhouse drummer Frank Capp.
Smith stuck mainly to tunes from the album, concentrating on jump, boogie and shuffle numbers and generally avoiding slow love songs (apparently feeling that this rock crowd wouldn’t appreciate ballads). She also spent a lot of time between songs spieling and showing clips.
Her last number, Prima’s usual closer, “The Saints,” was disappointing in that the crowd did more singing than she did. This is a mild complaint however, because when Smith was singing, she really delivered. And the house responded, not only by applauding and chanting her name, but by singing the ensemble responses from such classic charts as “When You’re Smiling” and “Oh Marie.”