How should entertainers respond to the cataclysmic events of last week? Saturday night at the Greek Theater, Tony Bennett and k.d. lang decided not to ignore the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but as lang commented early in her set, “keep the banter to a minimum and let the music do the talking.” It was good advice. With the exception of playing the National Anthem before the show began and a few oblique references from Bennett (deftly dropped in to introduce “It’s Just a Little Street Where Old Friends Meet,” about his growing up in Astoria, New York — “where a lot of police and firemen live”), both singers kept the focus squarely on their performances. It proved to be just the right tonic for these troubled times.
Appearing together for a rollicking “I’ve Got the World on a String,” Lang took center stage for a 45-minute set that concentrated on classic songs. With a piano trio providing sympathetic backing, “Don’t Smoke in Bed” a smoldering, slinky “Fever” and a beautifully modulated “Crying” showed lang to be one of the most effective torch singers around, her yearning vocals making a stronger emotional statement than any amount of speechifying.
While his setlist has not changed over the tour, Bennett’s performances of “Over the Rainbow,” “People” and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” took on powerful shadings. His intimate, natural phrasing — so easy and conversational — made for a wonderful contrast during his two duets with lang (“Moonglow” and “Keepin’ the Faith”). You wish they had performed more songs together.
Backed by the incomparable Ralph Sharon Quartet, Bennett divided his set into mini showcases: his hits (he had so many, he reminded the crowd, “I was the Britney Spears of my time”), songs associated with women (highlighted by a swinging version of “People,” with Sharon providing a bluesy countermelody on the piano), songs introduced by Fred Astaire and the songs of the Gershwins and Duke Ellington.
What would have been a sublime evening of music under any circumstances managed, for a few hours at least, to leave the hard realities of the world behind, allowing the sold-out audience to bask in the brilliance of one stage, two singers and the American songbook.
Bennett and lang will be performing at Radio City Music Hall in New York Sept. 28 and 29.