That Old Feeling: Best Bette Yet

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As she matured vocally, Midler got less campy, less melodramatic. Now she was closer to the material, orchestrating her vocal versatility and preternatural empathy to slip inside the spirit of each song. She could go seductively nasal for “E Street Shuffle,” demure in a perfect channeling of Patti Page for “Old Cape Cod,” brassy and clinging for her evocations of the low-biz songstresses Vicki Eydie and Dolores DeLago.

Her most powerful number, “Stay with Me” (best heard on the sound-track album of her 1980 concert film, “Divine Madness”), is the plea of a woman to her departing lover. Her mood is desperate; her sexual pride has been flayed raw. She can only beg and scream. Bette scorches the soul with this one. In six minutes she wrings out herself and the song, and mops up the audience as well. Her cover versions of all these songs make the originals sound like demo tapes.

The cue for Midler’s later song style was the title tune from “The Rose,” that lovely mantra of regeneration (written by Amanda McBroom) which Bette has now officially performed more times than Judy Garland did “Over the Rainbow.” In succeeding decades she would storm the charts with similar ballads — “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” “Every Road Leads Back to You,” “From a Distance” — nice numbers that, frankly, any thrush could have sung. But I’m glad Bette had hits with them.

By 1998 she was making albums only as vacations from movies and motherhood. On that year’s “Bathhouse Betty,” Midler's put her vocal voltage and pristine song salesmanship on display in tunes by Leonard Cohen, Chuckii Booker, Carole King, Ben Folds — lots of fine folk. Her voice was still supple, aching with hard-won wisdom (on the first single, “My One True Friend”) or smiling with the sweet clarity of her Honolulu youth (Gus Kahn's 1925 “Ukulele Lady”). Songs like “Laughing Matters” and “I'm Beautiful” gave the album the sassy intimacy of a pep talk from an old friend. At 52 Midler’s pipes were still brass-bold and silk-smooth.



DID WE SAY BRASS?

Now she’s 58, and the brass hasn’t tarnished. In the first moments of the Kiss My Brass show — a seaside boardwalk vista that will play wonderfully this weekend in Atlantic City — the star descends on a carousel’s white horse to the tune of “Big Noise from WInnetka” (an early Midler cover) and shouts, “I have returned!” The audience does a King Kong.

She looks preternaturally great: not an ounce of fat, except where there should be. Never one to hide her light under a bush, Bette trumpets, “I’m fab-ulous! Don’t I look it? Even I don’t know how I do it.” But shortly into the show, she feigns feebleness: “Two numbers and I’m exhausted. What’s gonna happen when I turn 50?” (This shtick is at least a decade old for our gal. In her 1993 tour, she fretted that she had Oldtimer’s disease, or at least Part-timer’s: “Did I sing the ballad yet? Was it wonderful?”).

Mostly, her singing is still wonderful. When I caught the show, at Madison Square Garden, I heard her cheat on “Skylark.” She also screwed up the second-verse modulation on “Hey, There.” (Mind you, she was lying supine on the stage while crooning most of this Clooney standard.) But she did more than justice to Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today,” and her medley of “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “It’s a Man’s World” showed the lady still has the lungs.

In the banter portion of the show, Bette comments on the current Britney-Christina fashion sense: “These days you’re not considered a professional entertainer unless you dress like a ho’.” — a dictat Bette practically invented. She oozes sympathy for a certain radio ideologue: “Poor Rush. Poor fat, stupid, hypocritical, drug-addicted Rush.” She shares her old-fashioned take on romantic rituals: “They exchanged vials of blood,” she says of Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton, sighing. “I remember when that used to mean something.” She hasn’t always been on the best of terms with her backup singers, but of the current trio she says, “We have a perfect relationship. They love and adore me. And I pay them.” And as the perennial mermaid Dolores, she confides some of her own fish-dish: “SpongeBob broke up with me. He said it was my fault he was retaining water.”

The show is beautifully paced, mixing a tribute to Fred Rogers with a hilarious interment of her sitcom (“When Monica Lewinsky’s show is not cancelled, and my show is cancelled, that’s fucked up!”). And for all Bette’s mock-mewling about encroaching age, the show never gave the sense that it was draining the poor dear of her bizarre fount of energy. The girl who beguiled Carson when she was 24 will be 60 next year, on December 1st, and shows no signs of wearing down. She’s not a Rube Goldberg machine, but a perpetual-motion one. I fully expect her to be still strutting, still entrancing with every high-step entrance, still flaunting her tits and flouting age, still wearing out not herself but her rapt audiences, when she’s 70.

The Bette is yet to come.

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