TVD Live: Tony Bennett: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song Tribute at Constitution Hall, 11/15

The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song usually goes to songwriters. An exception came this year with the award to Tony Bennett, who as a singer over a seven decade career, has been a leading purveyor of the American Songbook in general and the music of George and Ira Gershwin in particular.

So a few Gershwin songs were sung back to him as he was honored on November 15 in an event at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, DC for a public TV special that will air in January. Then, after giving thumbs up to the performers from his box at the side of the stage next to Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, Bennett, at 91 ran (!) on stage and blew everybody away with his still commanding jazz vocals.

The thing about these all-star salutes that seem so common, especially in DC, is that the stars who gather are rarely in the same class person being honored; in almost every case you’d rather hear the honoree than the guest star sing his signature songs. Perhaps because Bennett was honored in a network special marking his 90th birthday last year, some of that show’s star power was missing—particularly Lady Gaga, with whom he has recorded and toured.

I was half thinking Bob Dylan and his Band would show up, since he does a Bennett number, “Once Upon a Time,” in his tour, which was just in town the night before at the Anthem. Alas, he too had performed it for the 90th birthday TV special, albeit from a sound studio in Birmingham while touring the South. The tribute did have Stevie Wonder, though, which was pretty grand. Led out to stand and sing rather than sitting behind a keyboard as he usually does, Wonder sang “If I Ruled the World” and stuck around for a duet of “What a Wonderful World” with Gloria Estefan, adding some flourishes on his harmonica. Wonder’s appearance came just after another highlight, Savion Glover doing his matchless tap, first solo and then to back Vanessa Williams as she sang “Stepping Out with My Baby.”

Much of the show was made up of the younger generation of popular crooners, from Michael Bublé to Josh Groban, who did a version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” that almost seemed to have the power to heal politically torn Washington. Broadway’s Brian Stokes Miller seemed to be playing the part of an old-time nightclub crooner (one who also accompanied himself on melodica at one point). And Chris Botti played something on his horn that brought to mind the brassiness of Doc Severinson (alas, Wynton Marsalis was in the hall, but only appeared to introduce one of the many filmed segments).

The 11 piece band led by drummer Gregg Field was big on soft, jazzy guitar intros; it was disappointing that strings were replicated by synthesizer—a cheap sounding touch for an otherwise classy affair. (It was also, above all, a TV show, so the house lights were up most of the time, and there were between act moments of dead air followed by the disembodied voice of the TV director saying, “And…applause!”).

Of the others on the bill, Michael Feinstein seemed there more as a representative of the Gershwin estate, and crammed as many melodies from their songbook as he could fit into one song. One performer who got the first standing ovation was one from TV, Wé McDonald, a recent finalist on The Voice, who sang a song that charted for both Bennett and Wonder, “For Once in My Life.” To McDonald and nearly all the performers, the ever effervescent Bennett had big applause and thumbs up.

Given the award at the show’s conclusion, he gushed, “I can’t even describe how I feel. What a wonderful night for me. You know, I perform all over the world, but this is the best night I ever felt on stage.” The host for the night, inexplicably, had been Bruce Willis, but how great would it have been if Alec Baldwin had been there doing his upbeat Bennett impersonation (so much better than the one he does of Trump)?

Capping Bennett’s peppy set of “They All Laughed,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” and the inevitable “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” the cast joined him on stage for an instrumental reprise of his biggest hit, with Wonder improvising a harmonica solo. It was so good, it will break their heart to cut it off during the credits.

Tony Bennett: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song airs January 12, 2018 at 9 PM on PBS.

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