Barry Manilow performs with the L.A. Philharmonic at the first of three… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)
Before Monday night's show with Barry Manilow, the first of three fireworks-punctuated nights at the Hollywood Bowl culminating with Independence Day, one question came to mind: What does a Barry Manilow crowd look like in 2012?
After nearly 40 years of massive pop hits and even a few memorable commercial jingles (the insurance company that's "like a good neighbor"? That's Manilow), the answer should have been obvious — the crowd looks like you, me and just about everybody else. With the Bowl filled with families, couples and obviously longtime Manilow fans, the question quickly became less one of who sees Barry Manilow on a summer night, and more of wondering who wouldn't.
Entering to a stomping beat accented with alarmingly modern techno squiggles that had white-jacketed Los Angeles Philharmonic musicians pumping their instruments, Manilow arrived like a conquering hero as a crowd armed with swirling, Bowl-provided light sticks greeted him with a delirious ovation.
Yes, the show was nostalgic and even a touch campy in its brisk, lounge-ready pace at just under an hour, but it quickly became obvious that Manilow has enough classic, irony-free showmanship to win over even the most eyebrow-arching hipster.
Despite armloads of immediately recognizable songs that framed a generation of radio listeners in the late 1970s and early '80s, however, Manilow has yet to enjoy a pop culture reappraisal that fueled left-field resurgences by Tony Bennett, Tom Jones, Neil Diamond and even Celine Dion, whose emotive oeuvre was examined with enough head-spinning detail by critic Carl Wilson in the "331/3 " book series to make one question why you listen to music in the first place.
Manilow's not asking. He's obviously having too much fun. Though the L.A. Phil often faded into the background during bigger moments and Manilow's voice sounded pretty thin at the higher registers (there was enough thickening echo on his microphone during an early take of "Could It Be Magic" to fill an Olympic swimming pool, and some concertgoers complained about the night's overall sound), there was no denying his enthusiasm, which gave every impression that the singer was having a ball opening his first national tour since becoming a Vegas act in 2006.
"I was the Justin Bieber of the '70s," Manilow cracked before launching into "Even Now" behind his piano at the right of the stage. "Ask your mother," he added.
Which even Manilow would admit is overstating it a touch, in part because what's so endearing about him is the goofy, unabashedly un-cool charm of his performance. During the disco-adjacent "New York City Rhythm," which featured Manilow cycling at his piano with two other keyboardists (including music director Ron Walters), Manilow moved surprisingly well for a guy who's had multiple hip surgeries, and even led a mini-conga line with his backing singers as he playfully asked, "Should I go on 'Dancing With the Stars'?" The crowd seemed to think so.
PHOTOS: Hollywood Bowl highlights
But for all of Manilow's impishly nerdy appeal that included his wedding reception-ready merengue in "Copacabana" and calling for help from the crowd as he strolled the stage during the undeniable "I Write the Songs," it was his forlorn ballads that carried the most weight in leveling any resistance, which once ran so strong that an L.A. oldies station in the '90s briefly marketed itself by pledging not to play any of his songs.
A requisite turn at "Mandy" was affecting despite his voice's being reduced to a hoarse whisper at the song's opening, and the three-hanky "Weekend in New England" elicited a swooning chorus of female voices from the crowd as his lovesick question "When can I hold you?" echoed across the night. As the ladies roared their approval, briefly interrupting the song, Manilow looked genuinely surprised, even puzzled.
"At the Bowl?" he asked quizzically while casting a disbelieving look at his band. "I still got it!"