It really wasn’t fair. I put Michael Feinstein at a bit of a disadvantage before his performance last Thursday in Austin. After spending three days listening to and reviewing the newly remastered Sinatra-Basie: The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings album — arguably the quintessential collection of Sinatra recordings — I then went directly to the Bass Concert Hall to catch Feinstein’s The Sinatra Project Tour performance.

Well, there was dinner, but the gap between my many hours with Frank and Count Basie’s band, and MF taking the stage at Bass was pretty brief.

It took me all of about 2 minutes to realize that unconsciously I was holding Michael and his outstanding 18 piece stage band to an unfair — in fact an impossible standard. I mean how could Feinstein and his touring band compete with the best studio performances from Basie and Sinatra — beautifully rendered in last week’s new Concord Records release. Once I realized the irrational trick my subconscious was playing on me, I relaxed and joined the rest of the ~3,500 fans clearly enjoying the show. And what a show! 

I consider myself a Feinstein fan. But prior to last week, I’d only been able to see Michael Feinstein on stage via TV (his very interesting American Songbook TV specials and the like). Though polished and sometimes over precise in the studio, Feinstein was outstanding on stage … not “smooth cool” but he delivered a strong vocal style, rounded off nicely to achieve the Sinatra (and sometimes Sammy Davis) feel he was shooting for. That said, Michael Feinstein clearly walks his own path with these songs — not unlike Sinatra himself who was especially enchanted by artists that brought their own interpretation to songs and lyrics.

The Music…

Michael performed songs from both the current The Sinatra Project album (2008) and his upcoming Sinatra Project II: The Good Life CD (his 27th album release!) due out next month. He hit on all the “can’t miss” Sinatra classics highlighted by super versions of “Sway”, “Begin the Beguine”, “Fools Rush In”, “The Way You Look Tonight”, and an unusual and interesting instrumental version of “Brazil” that had Michael hammering on the piano like Elton John! MF is a great musician and drops back behind the piano to play on several numbers.

I especially loved the cool interlaced combo of “Luck Be A Lady” and “All I Want Is The Girl”… then there was “Fly Me To The Moon”… man, it was a hit parade of Franks best! The exception being a strange Bill Haley and the Comets number (“Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)”) that can only I assume Feinstein intended to showoff Frank’s exploratory side. It seemed a bit jarring and out of place to me.

Beyond the Music…

There are few better showman than Michael Feinstein on stage … he engages with the crowd without getting too chummy and laborious (like Bublé can get on occasion). Feinstein is a self avowed music geek and was a fount of info on Sinatra and his cronies and contemporaries — offering great anecdotes of his first meeting with Frank and their many encounters thereafter … stories relating to a myriad of song writers, Ann Margret, Rose Clooney (and her unique styling), Sammy Davis … he even worked in a hilarious anecdote about Paul Lynde believe it or not!

This type of thing can be overdone — especially in a live audience show but Michael did a masterful job of dropping in just the right amount of interesting tidbits and highlighted the history underpinning the numbers he sang. It was very well done and made the audience feel closer to Frank, Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer and the Rat Pack heyday that produced their marvelous songs.

The Bottom line…

If you get a chance to catch Michael Feinstein during his Sinatra Project tour (and you probably will as he does ~200 shows each year!), do it. He’s a blast to watch on stage, a fun and engaging entertainer with a lot of interesting info on Frank and his contemporaries … and most important, the music is fabulous! Other than that weird Bill Haley bit (?) Mr Feinstein delivers the best of the best from Sinatra’s vault in fine fashion and clearly loves whats he’s doing.

Epilog – Preserving The Great American Songbook…

Michael Feinstein is quite the energetic buckaroo! In addition to his many concert dates, recording session… etc., he chairs The Michael Feinstein Foundation; driving the effort to find, save, document, restore and generally capture for posterity all the music and trappings that make up the Great American Songbook era. It’s a very cool project that you should check out.