In a week that’s brought The Rolling Stones to Summerfest, five nights of U2 to the United Center and a trio of Grateful Dead farewell shows to Soldier Field, it would seem absolutely impossible for any tour or venue to match- let alone surpass- such superstar billing. But even amidst all those elite A-listers, Ravinia Festival upped the ante with the curious combination of legendary crooner Tony Bennett and pop trendsetter Lady Gaga, who effortlessly bridged the generation gap during the first of two shows (both of which became the fastest sellouts in the venue’s 111 year existence).
As the extraordinary entertainers bowed out to the bountiful beats of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” Bennett & Gaga’s chemistry was even more palatable in person than on record, and for those privileged enough to witness it all firsthand at Ravinia, it was nothing short of sheer history in the making.
At the start of Friday’s concert, attendees weren’t actually greeted by either of the co-headliners, but rather by the voice of Frank Sinatra, who introduced Bennett as basically the world’s greatest singer. And upon stepping out clad in a sharp navy blue suit, the 88-years-young icon presented his 29-year-old duet partner as today’s most prominent pop star, who confidently joined him in a glitzy gown (her first of no less than seven outrageous razzle dazzlers) to beautifully belt out Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.”
The near two hour trip through The Great American Songbook featured classics as revered as Irving Berlin’s “Cheek To Cheek” (also the title of the pair’s first ever full-length project) and George & Ira Gershwin’s “They All Laughed,” all backed by each other’s quartets on opposite sides of the stage linked together by a swinging big band in the center. From there, the duo alternated between additional collaborative segments and solos, sometimes taking a few moments to adapt to the chilly air of the damp outdoor evening, but always landing on their feet clutching a century’s worth of timeless material.
Bennett began the singles showcase by thanking Ravinia for 35 sold out engagements thus far, and after hearing his age-defying takes on “The Good Life,” Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town),” and of course, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” that lineage could easily be repeated if there winds up being enough sand in his hourglass. The veteran also took the occasion to offer a birthday salute to his best friend and all around “Chairman Of The Board” with resplendent versions of “I’ve Got The World On A String” and “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” (likely to be reprised at the Sinatra Centennial by Frank Sinatra Jr. and the Ravinia Festival Orchestra on Friday, September 4).
While jazz purists may have raised an eyebrow at Lady Gaga’s numerous tattoos and revealing wardrobes, no one could deny her astounding range and true mastery of the genre on everything from Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en rose” to her favorite composer Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” or a completely unexpected yet effective recasting of Cher’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” as a sultry ballad straight out of the 1920s. She also used her spotlight time to address social issues, championing Bennett for his integral role in 1960s Civil Rights Movement and concurrently celebrating marriage equality prior to Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” (whose unsuspecting opening line of “I used to visit all the very gay places” earned a whooping cheer from the gaggle of Little Monsters in particular).
Though such individual strengths could’ve easily carried the show, their combined star power and seamless vocal volleying ascended to greater heights, especially during the humorous interplay of Jerome Kern’s “I Won’t Dance,” an affectionate take on Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields’ “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” and the perpetual Richard Rodgers pleaser “The Lady Is A Tramp” (which kicked off this entire expedition in 2011). As the extraordinary entertainers bowed out to the bountiful beats of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” Bennett & Gaga’s chemistry was even more palatable in person than on record, and for those privileged enough to witness it all firsthand at Ravinia, it was nothing short of sheer history in the making.
Upcoming concert highlights at Ravinia Festival include Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga on Saturday, June 27; David Gray and Amos Lee on Sunday, June 29; The Doobie Brothers on Tuesday, June 30; Pink Martini, Aimee Mann and The Von Trapps on Wednesday, July 1; Blondie and Melissa Etheridge on Thursday, July 2; Brian Wilson and Rodriguez on Monday, July 6; Steve Miller Band on Friday, July 10; and Aretha Franklin on Saturday, July 11. For additional details, visit www.ravinia.org.