Gaga Was Good, But Bennett Was Better at the Wiltern

Lady Gaga and Tony BennettEXPAND
Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett
Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett
The Wiltern
Sunday, February 8, 2015

Before the vocalists took the stage, the 32-piece band opened with "Take The 'A' Train." Sparkling crystal swags hung from the proscenium, and the audience was elegant in evening wear, with plenty of suits and gowns on display and a lot more grey hair than typically seen at a Lady Gaga show — because this wasn't a Lady Gaga show. The night truly belonged to Tony Bennett.

That seemed by design. Though Gaga, the younger pop diva, might have more heat, the peerless Bennett casts a longer shadow, and Lady Gaga took an appropriately deferential position, letting Bennett have far more solo numbers while she went offstage for cocktails and costume changes. And though some of Gaga's "Little Monsters" might have walked in without adequate knowledge or respect for Bennett's oeuvre, they didn't walk out that way. 

The duo opened their set with "Anything Goes," which described the mood around this pairing: If these two can get together, get ready to throw expectations out the window. As they skipped around the stage, it was something like watching the world's coolest father-daughter dance at a wedding with a sky's-the-limit band budget.

Then, to further punch up their top-of-the-world feeling, Lady Gaga announced that she and Bennett had just won a Grammy earlier in the evening, and drove the point home by launching into "They All Laughed." Sample lyric: "They all said we'd never get together, darling, let's take a bow, for ho, ho, ho! Who's got the last laugh now?"

The most interesting thing about watching Gaga and Bennett together is seeing the contrast between a seasoned, storied performer and a comparatively green one, a rare opportunity to see the interplay between two stars at very different points in their careers. Though Gaga has undeniable vocal abilities and is known for high-wattage showmanship, she often lacks decisive crowd control in a live setting.

A past example: At her Staples Center stop on the short-lived "Born This Way" tour, she frequently castigated the audience for not standing, screaming, or dancing, as if she could berate them into enthusiasm. And at the Wiltern, oftentimes the wigs and glitter seemed to prop her up rather than amplify her. That said, it seems clear that by the time she reaches the age Bennett is now, Lady Gaga will eventually have found her way, mastering the art of owning a crowd. 

Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga and their 32-piece band.EXPAND
Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga and their 32-piece band.
Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Without the giant production numbers we're accustomed to seeing at a Lady Gaga show, aside from her costuming (dazzling, yet restrained by meat-dress standards), the focus falls to her voice. It's solid and powerful, but Gaga has yet to settle on a defining vocal style. 

Her heartfelt and somewhat subdued performance of "Every Time We Say Goodbye," dedicated to her parents who were in the audience, was the evening's Gaga high point, because she maintained a single feeling throughout. Elsewhere in the show, Gaga would one moment trill in a gospel-inflected Mariah Carey wail, another moment evoke a brash Bette Midler, then reach for vintage jazz diva. The mix makes Gaga come across as a youthful searcher, still trying to find her niche.

But by reaching deep into the Great American Songbook, Gaga is playing a high-stakes game. She's taking herself out of competition with the other pop girls in this week's Top 40 and jumping into a bigger pond, inviting comparison to the powerhouses who mastered that material first: Washington, Fitzgerald, Holiday. And though Lady Gaga's technical ability is undeniable, in terms of harnessing an ineffable signature style, she isn't there yet. 

Compare that to Tony Bennett, who riveted the crowd without a single sequin, shimmy or costume change. While some living legends can feel like they're phoning it in on tunes they've sung too many times (we're looking at you, Willie Nelson), Bennett even made his staple "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" twist the knife of long-distance longing as sharp as ever. And his take on "For Once in My Life" — made famous by Stevie Wonder's uptempo version — made a heard-it-a-million-times tune arrive altogether different: brimming with the only recently shed pain of a longtime loser.

Bennett's brilliance, in short, is that he acts as a conduit for great songwriting. He never gets out ahead of the material, never makes himself the focus, as divas so typically do. He's there to squeeze every ounce of emotion out of the beautifully crafted songs he's sharing with a rapt audience.

In the night's most magical moment, Bennett set his microphone down on a nearby piano and sang "Fly Me to the Moon" unamplified. At first, a murmur of confusion went through the crowd, as people wondered if there were unplanned audio problems. But everyone quickly realized that Bennett wanted to connect with us without the artifice of amplification between our ears and his voice. It's a moment that won't be repeated when Gaga and Bennett return to L.A. to play the Hollywood Bowl in May. 

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Though the house was in the palm of his hand throughout the evening, the emotional peak of Bennett's portion of the show came with his masterful "How Do You Keep the Music Playing," whose lyrics might also stand in as a question about his decision to join forces with Lady Gaga: "How do you lose yourself to someone/And never lose your way?/How do you not run out of new things to say?"

One can speculate on the motives for the unusual pairing — Gaga's desire to evoke legacy, Bennett's urge to keep a grip on relevance — but spending time on the "why" seems cynical in the face of the duo's obvious immense pleasure in something bigger than the both of them: the music. 

Set list: 

Take The "A" Train
Judgment Day
Anything Goes 
Cheek to Cheek
They All Laughed 
The Good Life
Lady’s in Love With You 
Nature Boy 
How Do You Keep the Music Playing 
Sing You Sinners 
Bang Bang
Bewitched
Firefly
Smile / When You’re Smiling
Steppin’ Out
I Won’t Dance
For Once in My Life
The Best Is Yet to Come
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love
Lush Life 
Sophisticated Lady
Watch What Happens 
Let’s Face the Music and Dance
Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye
San Francisco
Who Cares
Fly Me to the Moon
But Beautiful 
The Lady Is a Tramp 
It Don’t Mean a Thing 


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