February 17, 2016
Showing more resiliency than plenty of folks half his age (I call in sick to work if I cut myself shaving), the 72-year-old Barry Manilow was back onstage Monday, a mere three days after he was hospitalized because of complications from oral surgery last week. Forced to cancel two dates, Manilow returned to the stage in occasionally rough but mostly acceptable form Wednesday night.
He's been a soft pop fixture since 1974, yet there’s a definite contrast between the popular image of the guy in puffy sleeves singing "Copacabana" and the way Manilow comes across in interviews. Less apt to mince words these days, he compared touring to prostitution in a recent Chronicle interview (“It’s not the work, it’s the stairs").
But to many people near my age, he’s the guy whose wardrobe John Bender accuses Principal Vernon of raiding, this in spite of the fact he's never really gone away. His latest album, My Dream Duets, was just nominated for a Grammy, and he's toured almost every year since the early '70s. What made Wednesday night's show notable was that, as the "One Last Time!" billing indicates, it's the last opportunity we're going to have to see him perform.
We arrived about halfway through Michael Lington's set. Of immediate note was how (relatively) full the Toyota Center was for the opening act ("relatively" because the entire upper bowl and sections 113 and 114 were completely closed off). If I had to guess, I'd say most people assumed Manilow was going it alone, or maybe I misread the annoyed expressions.
Lington's sound was a bit too SNL bumper music for our tastes, but he seemed enthusiastic. He would also (spoiler!) join Manilow onstage later in the evening.
Taking the stage with a nine-piece band — behind Plexiglas, which I can only assume is to protect them from hurled Metamucil bottles — and three back-up singers, Manilow looked none the worse for wear (allowing for being a septuagenarian with decades of plastic surgery, of course). He opened with "It's a Miracle," going all the way back to his second album. Manilow expressed his love for Houston early on, and said playing here always "feels like coming home." I bet you say that to all the cities.
The first half of the set consisted of songs familiar to anyone who had an FM radio in the Carter years. "Somewhere in the Night," "Can't Smile Without You" (accompanied by a bouncing emoji on the big screen) and "Looks Like We Made It" were received with predictable enthusiasm, encouraging those assembled to wave the green glowsticks they were given with as much abandon as you could expect from folks who had a hard time staying upright for more than one song at a time.
I always like to figure out which of an artist's songs cause the first restroom exodus (I call them "toilet tunes"). For example, Iron Maiden's would be "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and for Manilow it was "Brooklyn Blues," from 1988's Swing Street. Thus began a three-song lull that ended when Manilow did a video duet with Judy Garland to "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart."
Never having had the opportunity to see Garland live, it was a definite "ALL SHALL LOVE ME AND DESPAIR" moment for me.
Apparent miraculous recovery aside, Manilow periodically had trouble most of the night with his lower register. The higher notes weren't a problem, and it's pretty damn impressive when a 72-year-old can still belt to the back of the arena. And as my friend pointed out, this was usually done with his mike held at chest level. Formidable.
And lest you become too tempted to mock the Vegas vibe of the evening, Manilow is currently leading an effort to donate used instruments to local schools in order to get kids into music. He recently donated a piano to YES Prep and offered free tickets to anyone who did likewise, crediting music for helping him survive the "most dangerous high school in America."
Which in late-1950s Brooklyn probably meant he was spared from getting mooned by the T-Birds.
The full-length song section of the set closed with "Weekend in New England" and "Mandy," during which Manilow sang a duet with a video of himself performing the song in 1975 on The Midnight Special. From that point came the medley, and I honestly wouldn't have minded hearing some of those songs ("This One's For You," "I Write the Songs") in their entirety, but I'll take what I can get.
Because this really is "one last time" for him, isn't it? Other acts of a certain, uh, vintage can push on without acknowledging the EKG in the room, even as we mutter about how long they can keep it up (looking at you, Willie and the Stones). But to my knowledge, Manilow is the only one who has basically said, "I'm done," and you took him at his word (looking at you, KISS). Yes, it's a cheesy show and the median age was somewhere in the vicinity of "mandatory retirement," but weigh that against the sobering realization that this tour was probably the last time anyone will hear these songs in person ever again.
This knowledge, and perhaps how it applies to many other musicians of that era, appeared to dawn on everyone as Manilow encored to "Copacabana" and a reprise of "It's a Miracle," heaving themselves to their feet to acknowledge their Emperor of Easy Listening.
Personal Bias: Unabashed listener of Barry Manilow Live in my youth.
The Crowd: "Fanilows" aplenty, with the exception of the little girl dressed in a formal dress accompanying her grandfather (I'm not crying, *you're* crying!) and a trio of pre-adolescents behind me enjoying themselves in refreshingly non-ironic fashion.
Overheard In The Crowd: "Now!" screamed by untold numbers of women who haven't gotten the message when Manilow sang, "When can I touch you?"
Random Notebook Dump: "Why is the band behind a sneeze guard?"
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It's a Miracle
Somewhere in the Night
Can't Smile Without You
Looks Like We Made It
Could It Be Magic
I Am Your Child
Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart ("duet" with Judy Garland)
Memory (Elaine Page cover)
Weekend in New England
I Made It Through the Rain
The Old Songs
I Don't Want to Walk Without You
New York City Rhythm
Some Kind of Friend
Read 'em and Weep
Somewhere Down the Road
This One's for You
Tryin' to Get the Feeling Again
Ready to Take a Chance Again
I Write the Songs
Copacabana (At the Copa)
It's a Miracle (Reprise)