A few songs into Lady Gaga’s set the question began to loom: where was Tony Bennett? This was his 95th birthday show after all, but these two last-minute shows (August 3rd & 5th, and announced just two weeks before taking place) at Radio City Music Hall were billed ominously as “One Last Time.” The shows are as a swan song for the initially unlikely pairing, who first joined forces on a spirited rendition of “The Lady Is A Tramp” from Bennett’s 2011 Duets II album. The show also prohibited any form of photography or recording. All devices had to be locked in pouches for the show’s duration, adding fuel to the possibility that something might go awry with the ailing Bennett. When the news broke of Bennett’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, it painted a picture of a towering legend who was succumbing to his 2016 diagnosis, but still sharp as ever when it came to performing. That was true Tuesday night at Radio City Music Hall.
Hours before the show the duo’s second album Love For Sale was announced with an October release date and made available for pre-order. The lead single “I Get A Kick Out Of You” was also released, and a music video was released days later on Friday, August 6. Despite all the fanfare, no music from the new album was performed, though it certainly didn’t detract from the incredible show.
Opening the show with a 10-song set strictly composed of jazz and big band-style numbers, Lady Gaga gave the performance of a lifetime. She was off to the races the moment the bombastic “Luck Be A Lady” began, singing, dancing, and holding no punches. The versatility she possesses as a vocalist and performer can’t be understated. Here is one of the most crucial figures in contemporary pop music, known for outrageous outfits (remember the meat dress at the VMAs?), dressed in an elegant gown and boa, belting the hell out of the standards. She demonstrated her expert vocal control as tackled standards such as the gorgeous Gershwin “Someone To Watch Over Me,” Dinah Washington’s “What A Difference A Day Made,” and Jackie Gleason’s “Call Me Irresponsible.”
For all her singing, she wasn’t short on words. She wove tales and anecdotes into the moments between her songs, making the 5,000+ seat Radio City Music Hall feel as intimate and warm as a jazz club. Before launching into Nat “King” Cole’s “Orange Colored Sky,” she told the endearing story of first meeting Bennett. She’d performed the song during a 2011 charity event for the Robin Hood Foundation where Bennett was in attendance. It was her one deviation in a setlist of contemporary pop material. Upon learning that Bennett would like to meet her, she recalled ordering her team to strip away the “Gaga” of it all so she could look “like a lady” to meet him. It was then that Bennett decreed that she was a jazz singer, and doubled down on his declaration by inviting her to record an entire jazz album with him. It’s a badge of honor she wears proudly, as any Italian girl from New York City would.
She did a quick costume change after a few songs, returning in a gorgeous back gown with white designed by her sister, Natali Germanotta. She segued into her jaw-dropping re-imagination of Cher’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” Before introducing the song she’d like played at her funeral, “Coquette,” she described exactly the urn she’d like to be cremated in, and it’s location outside her bedroom. She doesn’t want to end up “in a pink dress with a bad perm.” It happens, apparently.
In the middle of a thrilling rendition of “La vie en rose,” she descended into the crowd to have a moment with her parents and sister. “Some things are more important than show business,” she declared after returning to the stage to a standing ovation. “You might want to stay on your feet” she advised the crowd as she broke into the classic “Theme From New York, New York” and introduced Tony Bennett, who did not appear. Instead, the curtain dropped.
Moments later, it rose again to reveal Bennett, beaming with a big smile and firmly planted in front of the piano. The crowd leapt to their feet to greet Bennett as the orchestra kicked into high gear. What unfolded next was a barrage of hits that came and went so quickly it was hard to keep up, until eight songs on when he slowed things down with a tear-jerking rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” The musical director gave just a few seconds between songs, which was designed to keep Bennett on track. He clearly wasn’t all there, but he was entirely present when it came to the music. He wasn’t perfect, but he showed no loss of vocal strength. At times the vocal intensity he managed was staggering.
After a gorgeous reading of “Fly Me To The Moon,” Gaga re-emerged in a shimmering gold number and sang “Happy Birthday” to a somewhat bewildered, but smiling Bennett. Afterwards, the duo did three duets that all largely went off without a hitch. Each time, she’d say to him, “Tony, let’s sing (x)” and they’d sing it. As she danced around him during their duets Bennett seemed entertained but unsure of what to do. He’d react with enthusiastic but lost-sounding “woah!’s” and “wow!”’s. For anyone who’s had first-hand experience with Alzheimer’s, it was crystal clear that the disease was shining through. Thankfully, the disease didn’t own nor derail this night.
It’s unclear whether or not the two intended to do more duets, but after a rousing “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” Gaga introduced the band, they took their bows, and the curtain dropped without a “goodnight.” It felt unfinal, and not long after the curtain rose once again to reveal a solo Bennett. He gave one last encore, his signature “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” At the song’s conclusion Gaga returned to retrieve him and the show was over.
Both performances are being taped for MTV, apparently for a documentary.