Barbra Streisand is one of the world's most recognized vocalists. (Michael Robinson Chavez…)
Climate control isn’t really possible at an outdoor venue like the Hollywood Bowl, but the skies knew better than to rain on Barbra Streisand’s parade Friday evening. They threatened, but Mother Nature wasn’t about to launch an all-out assault on this Brooklyn-born, Malibu-enthroned diva.
It may have been too chilly for top-notch singing, but icons of a certain age don’t have to prove themselves night after night. Twinkling is enough for their fans, and Streisand did more than hover like a distant planet and glow.
Babs’ reputation for strong-arm perfectionism is as integral to her myth as lightning bolts are to Zeus’, but time seems to have mellowed her. She kept talking about toe warmers and heaters and was continually fussing with the wrap that was the only thing standing between her glamorous black ensemble and the wind. Yet no cold November breeze was going to thwart her from delivering a full-scale show, no matter the frost on her vocal cords. She came, she croaked, she conquered.
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Friday’s performance, the first of two weekend shows (the other was Sunday), wasn’t just a concert. It was a chance to spend quality time with a legend and enjoy the sights and sounds of her alternate reality.
The evening’s talky rhythm (the show had more asides than a Shakespeare tragedy) put the audience immediately under the spell of her folksy grandiosity. Streisand at 70 isn’t just a star — she’s a world view, a style of being, an entire cosmology, with the highest possible thread-count sheets. You don’t just come for the music; you come for the whole church service. The sermon, broken up into bits, is inseparable from the songs.
This Back to Brooklyn tour touched down last month at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and Streisand was in a sentimental state of mind. (“I left Brooklyn to pursue my dreams, but Brooklyn never quite left me.”) Her latest recording, “Release Me,” a collection of songs that didn’t make it onto her past albums, is part of this nostalgia project. And of course her fellow Brooklynites, songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman, whose grown-up romantic lyrics have helped define Streisand’s sensibility, were recollected like favorite Flatbush neighbors.
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Images of Streisand’s career flashed on giant screens to jog memories and set in motion interior monologues within the mostly 45 and older crowd: “Oh, look, there she is with Judy Garland!” “I don’t care what anyone says, she was adorable in ‘Funny Girl!’” “Eek, that frizzy phase was a mistake, but everyone had a perm back then.”
Elegantly supported by a 60-piece orchestra conducted by Bill Ross, Streisand played den mother to the teenage Italian singing trio Il Volo, which delivered a bouncy “O Sole Mio” and innocently flirted with jazzy instrumentalist Chris Botti, who accompanied her in an emotionally resonant “Lost Inside of You.” She paid tribute to Marvin Hamlisch (using the original orchestration for “The Way We Were”) and Jule Styne (giving us a taste of what her Rose in “Gypsy” would be like).
A home movie made by Streisand’s son, Jason Gould, might be interpreted by a psychoanalyst as an Oedipal complex collage, but it was all the sweeter for being so nakedly tenderhearted. When Gould came onstage for a duet of “How Deep Is the Ocean?,” a kvelling Streisand made Jewish mothers of us all: Such a nice a boy, and he sings almost as good as his mother!
Yes, indeed, this was a family affair. Streisand’s younger sister, actress and singer Roslyn Kind, joined in the musical fun during the encore after the two listened to a few operatic strains of their mother on tape. There was politics too, naturally enough, but celebratory remarks about the election were saved for the most part until the end, when conservative fans could make a beeline for the exits without making a scene.
But Streisand’s traveling variety show, which included a canned segment in which she answered questions submitted in advance by audience members, is predicated on her golden pipes. Time hasn’t left her voice unscathed. It’s huskier and less supple, but it still retains those signature features (the tuneful nasality and extravagant emotional clarity, chief among them) that have made it one of the most alluring sounds in popular music for the last half-century.
Her upper register was mostly off limits and the breathy coloratura styling that has given her songs their distinctive imprimatur was a vestige of its former self, but she can still belt with the best of them. And long past the need for showing off, her interpretations have a relaxed freedom that is a pleasure all its own.
A bit wobbly in the beginning (her “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” was partly cloudy), her singing grew stronger as the evening wore on. And though she had trouble competing with the memory of her younger self when performing some of her biggest hits, such as “Evergreen” and “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),” her rendition of “People” was infused with a powerful warmth that took the sting out of a blustery autumn night.
Streisand could hardly believe herself that she last performed at the Bowl in 1967. It’s probably not the ideal setting for her at this stage of her career, especially when the winds are howling, but by the end of the night you could almost swear you were in her living room.
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