Exactly one week after the Hollywood Bowl was lit up with the sway of multi-colored light sabers, waved by little kids, their parents and grandparents alike in honor of legendary film composer John Williams, everyone who ventured out to see the living, breathing swirl of spirited melodic energy that is Barry Manilow was greeted with green glow sticks on their seats.
With no dramatic, imperial battles to be fought, the thousands of adoring “Fanilows” and those who accompanied them were free to wave and tap them in time to a 90 minute whirlwind of hits that covered – either in full or in a medley of snippets towards the end of the show - an astounding 23 of the 25 Top 40 hits he racked up during his golden decade from 1974 to 1983. This run started with him bursting into our collective pop consciousness with his #1 trademark hit “Mandy” (“She introduced me to all of you,” he said in one of his many expressions of gratitude) and wrapped with Jim Steinman’s epic 1983 ballad “Read ‘Em and Weep.”
At a few junctures during the tireless performance featuring sweeping arrangements with the LA Phil, the singer enjoyed referencing his age and longevity, saying “Not bad for a 76-year-old guy” and joking that his first album came out in “1821.” This cool courage makes it okay for decades long fans like myself to admit that I had numerous LPs, cassettes and CDs during his heyday and beyond – and reflect that it’s been 35 years (almost back to the 19th Century!) since my first of many Manilow concerts. This perspective allows me to observe a fascinating point of continuity.
Clearly, he’s aware that a good portion of his crowd have seen him a gazillion times before. Hey, who doesn’t want to whistle one more time along with the intro to “Can’t Smile Without You”? Yet for those who were “dragged along” (one of his longstanding self-deprecating bits) and to add warmth and intimacy, he always introduces autobiographical tidbits between moments of the hit parade that shine intimate lights on his humble beginnings.
At this show, he made the Bowl his living room as he ran a scratchy clip of “Baby Barry” singing upon his grandfather’s urging – and seemed genuinely moved to share once again the stunning moment where his grandfather saw the adult Manilow singing at Carnegie Hall. He used “This is My Town,” the title track to his most recent album to further celebrate a love affair with his hometown which he first chronicled in 1975 with “New York City Rhythm” and later tapped into with “Brooklyn Blues.”
Another cool tidbit – again, well known to fans who grew up with him as the romantic soundtrack of our younger lives – that he delivered with whimsical humor is that he never started out to be a “performer, mega star or sex god…I just wanted to be a composer.” Before Arista Records founder Clive Davis convinced him to record “Mandy,” Manilow made part of his living writing commercial jingles that any kid growing up in the 70s knew by heart. His addition of “I am stuck on Band-Aids” and “Just like a good neighbor, State Farm is there” was a welcome treat.
Just like his voice, which though a bit raspier than in his 30’s still has emotion and power to spare, Manilow’s instantly recognizable hits have aged well and taken on a timeless quality. As he pointed out in a slight jibe to today’s music (which he admits is full of cool rhythms and loops), his tunes reflect a time in pop music when melody was king. His glorious formula of starting songs with gentle piano intros and ending in sweeping final chorus crescendos seemed tailor made for a performance with the LA Phil, with ballads like “Looks Like We Made It,” “Even Now,” “This One’s For You” and “Weekend in New England” still able to capture all the competing joys and sorrows of love gained, lost and looked back wistfully upon.
Another bittersweet tune that captured this vibe was his dramatic rendition of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s “Memory,” which, Barry being Barry, he introduced with two comical asides: “It’s from Cats, which is a musical about…Cats” and the fact that his and Barbra Streisand’s ability to score hits with it somehow correlates the size of their noses. When casual fans, curious passersby or “the dragged” think Manilow, they usually think “master balladeer.” And when he pulled out a stool and sang “I Made It Through the Rain,” a song that captures his ability to survive and thrive in the fickle industry for 45 years, he was at his peak in this mode.
Yet Manilow’s up-tempo gems are just as engaging, and he started the show with two of his best, “It’s a Miracle” and “Daybreak.” He also wrapped on a grooving high with a rousing take on “Copacabana,” the Latin-tinged movie within a song performed to jubilant effect with a high school gospel choir. Another highlight that perfectly showcased the singer’s ability to move from gentle grace to thumping fun was “Could It Be Magic,” which morphed from its familiar ballad form into the party hearty disco version that Donna Summer took to the top of the dance charts. This moment also gave Manilow a chance to fully engage and interact with his phenomenally soulful backup singers (and dancers!) Kye Brackett, Sharon Hendrix and Melanie Taylor.
The young choir first came onstage, flanking Manilow and his ten-piece ensemble on either side, to ensure that take Manilow’s trademark “I Write the Songs” was given its proper spiritual place in his canon and to take it to fresh, transcendent levels. As any “Fanilow” can tell you, he didn’t write that song. It was by Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, and the singer balked when Davis first presented it. Thank heavens Manilow trusted the executive’s instincts and recorded what became his second #1 hit. He may not have written that particular tune and a few of his other most familiar smashes, but he definitely SINGS the songs that still, after 45 years, make the whole world sing.
Opening for Manilow was Lorna Luft, who engaged the crowd in a Broadway worthy performance of classic songs by her legendary mother Judy Garland, couched magnificently in a rambunctious 20- minute medley filled with musical snippets and an insightful, incisive biographical narrative of Garland’s triumph and tragedy filled life – as told, in colorful fashion, to Luft’s children, who never met their grandmother.