Sunday, January 6, 2019

Michael Bublé: Tour Stop 148 (Warner-Reprise Records, PBS-TV, aired January 5, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I chose as last night’s TV “feature” a PBS pledge-break program called Michael Bublé: Tour Stop 148. Michael Bublé, like Andrew Lloyd Webber, seems to be one of those people you either love or hate — either you think he’s the ultimate destruction of pop music forever or you think he’s a little god — and I recently shocked a friend by telling him I liked Bublé. “Well,” I said somewhat defensively, “I don’t think he’s a great singer, but it’s nice to know there’s someone out there who’ll still be able to sing the Great American Songbook after Tony Bennett croaks.” Alas, Michael Bublé has become one of those modern-day artists who doesn’t trust just himself, his voice and his music to win an audience. Like Beyoncé — a great soul singer in the tradition of Dinah Washington and Diana Ross who is currently burying her true talent in overproduced recordings so full of “samples” you can barely hear her and even more overproduced videos that look like they were directed by the love-child of Busby Berkeley and Leni Riefenstahl — Buble has filled his current touring show full of “production,” including projected images of sky, sunsets, clouds, fires and whatnot behind him, the use of his projection screens to show multiple images of him so he looks like he’s about to do a solo re-enactment of the last scene of The Lady from Shanghai, and an oversized band that contains rock players, jazz players, string players and everything else he can think of he might need for whatever he wants to sing.

What’s more, the sheer elaborateness of his production means he has to do the same show every time and can’t vary his repertoire according to the mood of an audience the way the great cabaret singers of the past could do. Though PBS’s announcers were proudly proclaiming Bublé as one of their own because his first U.S. TV appearance was on the public network, the shows I’ve seen him on before were on NBC and overlapped some of the same repertoire as he did last night as well as some of the same lack of focus. Bublé is, quite frankly, at his best when he’s singing songs of the 1930’s and 1940’s; when he tries to do more contemporary material — or, even worse, when he tries to write more contemporary material himself — he seems to wander off cue and spoil the simplicity of his act. Last night he opened with “Cry Me a River,” the 1953 song by Arthur Hamilton that was a huge hit for Julie London in 1955 with a simple backing by jazz guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Bob Leatherwood (no other instruments!). (Wikipedia lists at least two more recent songs called “Cry Me a River,” by a band called Pride and Glory in 1994 and Justin Timberlake in 2002.) Wikipedia’s page on “Cry Me a River” says that the song was originally written for Ella Fitzgerald to sing in the 1955 film Pete Kelly’s Blues but was dropped from the final cut — though Ella recorded a superb version in 1961 on her album Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! Bublé drowned his version in an overwrought orchestral arrangement — in fact that was my complaint about much of this show, that he was doing big-orchestra versions of songs that had worked far better for other singers with smaller bands.

Then he did a version of Little Willie John’s “Fever” that successfully combined John’s R&B original and the superb jazz cover by Peggy Lee (again, with just two musicians behind her — bassist Joe Mondragon and drummer Shelly Manne); Lee dropped one of John’s lyrics and added some of her own that turned the mood of the song from fervent and pleading to detached and cool, and Bublé sang both the verse Lee had dropped and at least some of the ones she’d added, to good effect. Then, alas, Bublé departed the older material he does best and did one of his own songs, “I Just Haven’t Met You Yet,” which was an O.K. modern-day romantic ballad but hardly at the level of the older songs on the program, and he followed it up with another recent song, “It’s a Beautiful Day.” Then there came the first of the pledge breaks with which KPBS studded these programs — and whereas previous PBS pledge-break musical specials have already aggravated us with the repeated (ad nauseam) statement that what you’re seeing is only a fraction of the full program, which you can get for a three-figure contribution to your public TV station, this one threw fragments of Bublé’s performances into the pledge breaks themselves, hinting that you’d get complete versions of these songs later — which you didn’t. On the first pledge break there was a hint that we’d get a version of the song “I’ve Got the World on a String” and a mention of Frank Sinatra, who recorded it in 1953 on his first session with the great arranger Nelson Riddle, though there’s a just as beautiful version 20 years earlier by Louis Armstrong — and Bublé’s version, at least from the fragments we got to hear, wasn’t as good as Armstrong’s or Sinatra’s but still communicated the song effectively and showcased him in the material he does best. Then we got two fragments of Bublé’s version of “Try a Little Tenderness,” one in rehearsal (there were a lot of shots of people setting up or tearing down his sets and interviews with members of his behind-the-scenes crew, in an attempt to distinguish this from every other PBS concert special with a major star) and one in performance, which indicated that once again, as with “Fever,” Bublé had tried to combine the two best-known versions of this song — by Frank Sinatra in the 1940’s (quiet and prayerful) and Otis Redding in the 1960’s (loud and soulful) — whether or not they were compatible.

After that Bublé did the Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse ballad “Feelin’ Good,” which has received a lot of great performances over the years, including a superb, unbeatable one by Carmen McRae on her 1964 live album Woman Talk and a great instrumental version by John Coltrane in 1965. There are also editions by Nina Simone (a great performance as far as she is concerned, but saddled with an overblown, tasteless arrangement by Hal Mooney) and Jennifer Hudson (who tried to copy Simone’s but, alas, copied Mooney’s arrangement as well), and Bublé too worked from the Simone-Mooney version rather than Carmen’s superbly understated one (and I missed Carmen’s marvelous vocal ornamentation, particularly her change of the leap in the melody on the line “it’s a new day, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new life for me” into a scale). Then Bublé did “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” in the style of the great Sinatra-Riddle version from the 1950’s — and did it quite well. After that, however, it was back to contemporary material — “I Wonder Who’s Loving You” and a pledge-break excerpt of “Kiss and Hold Her Tight” (interrupted with another pledge-break excerpt, “Save the Last Dance for Me,” the Drifters’ 1959 hit and one that, judging from what little we got to hear of it, would have been right up Bublé’s alley) before his next full song, “Home,” a Bublé original which he decided to use as an excuse to fire confetti at the audience and do bits of other songs with the word “love” in their titles, the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” and Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love” (Elvis’s last #1 hit — in 1972, five years before he died — and though I’m hardly a big Elvis fan he did sing this song with far more throbbing emotion and soul than Bublé could muster) and a fragment of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” that’s been manhandled by all too many singers — Russell’s own version is quite good but to me this is another song “owned” by Carmen McRae, who staked her claim to it on her 1972 live album The Great American Songbook and who sang the hell out of it with a level of passion and emotion that totally eluded Bublé.

After that we heard Bublé’s orchestra playing the outro to his concert and Bublé himself taking his bows, saying goodbye to the audience and the final credits flashing preceding … another pledge break. You might have turned off the TV set (or changed the channel) at this moment, but if you had, you’d have missed the simplest, the most beautiful and the best Bublé performance of the night: his encore, in which he sat alone at a piano and sang and played “Smile,” the beautiful song Charlie Chaplin wrote as the theme for what I think is his greatest movie, Modern Times (1936). Though, according to the Wikipedia page on the song, Chaplin had nothing to do with the lyrics — they were added by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons in 1954 — their theme of surviving through adversity and holding to hope and happiness in the middle of despair is very Chaplinesque, and Bublé responded to the song’s simple, affirmative mood with low-keyed singing that made far more of an emotional effect than the heaving and straining he’d been doing, especially on modern material, though much of the evening. Michael Bublé is unquestionably a singer of talent, and the fact that he doesn’t always use his talent in the ways that showcase it at its best makes his work and his career even more frustrating than it might be if he had less vocal talent and less potential for real greatness.