Natalie … she’s kinda sneaky

An ad in the paper Friday morning caught my eye. It featured a big photo of Natalie Cole and highlighted her upcoming event with the Austin Symphony Orchestra. I thought, ‘cool, I need to get this on my calendar’ and then noticed the date for the show was 2/10!

You’d think someone that calls’s himself the Vocal Standards Guy would KNOW when freaking Natalie Cole was performing in his home town. I mean, I regularly scour web sites and trade rags looking for standards vocal artists that might be taking the stage within reasonable FLYING DISTANCE for god’s sake!

Needless to say I quickly snagged a ticket at the Long Center website and ended up experiencing maybe the best live performance I’ve ever seen.

Taken all together…

…the show Friday night really does stack up as one of the very best vocal acts I’ve been able to catch.

Row H; Seat 136 ... right of center but great seat

First the venue … the acoustic quality at the Long Center for the Performing Arts was spectacular. Since I bought a single, I ended up getting a great seat (9 rows back; house right) … perfect clarity and tone without the slightest hint of reverb. The orchestra, Natalie’s stage band, the background singers and Natalie herself were balanced perfectly — the audience was awash in a warm, round, expansive auditory experience.

ASO was a great opening act!

The Austin Symphony Orchestra (sounds more hip to call them “ASO”) conducted by Peter Bay opened for Natalie. Two sets of distinctive Pops arrangements set the stage perfectly for the evening.

The first medley was titled Symphonic Swing and got every toe in the house tapping with cool editions of Big Band swing numbers like Benny Goodman’s “Jersey Bounce”, Glenn Miller’s “Tuxedo Junction”, “Satin Doll” from Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey’s “Opus One”.

A Motown styled Hot Soul Medley followed that was littered with classic R&B numbers like “I’ll Be There”, “Heard it Through the Grapevine” and “I’ve Got Sunshine”. ASO’s opening act was no more than 15 minutes but Peter and his Pops orchestra did a great job of warming up the audience for the ~90 minutes of triple distilled, pure awesome that followed.

 Even Intermission was exciting!

As soon as the lights came up for intermission, the guy behind me passed out. One minute I’m chatting up the older gentleman next to me (who had been the chief engineer on the space shuttle for ~ 20 years … how cool is that!) and the next I’m sprinting to snag an EMT after hearing this woman off my left ear repeatedly screaming her husband’s name — apparently trying to reanimate the poor guy, who was out cold.

Before I get back, the guy is awake and wondering what the all the fuss is about. Seems he decided he was just too busy to eat that day and his blood sugar was not pleased with his decision. They must have rammed some cookies into him because he made it back for the show … good thing too, ’cause he would have been really sick if he missed it and heard how good a show Natalie put on.

Natalie…

…lead off with one of the best songs of the evening — “The Very Thought Of You” — and it never let up from there. I’m not exaggerating when I say Ms. Cole sounds every bit as good today as she did in 1991 when she blew up to the big time with her Unforgettable: With Love release.

All the wonderful warm tones, range, dexterity and amplitude remain in abundance — NO degradation … not in the slightest. She was awesome. (BTW, I bought a gross of “awesomes” on sale at Vinnie’s Discount House of Adjectives … I’ll try not to use them all in this review. ;-))

Seventeen amazing songs…

Parsing my favorite tunes from the 17 song set list Natalie delivered is like trying to call out my favorite dish from a Thomas Keller buffet … but in the vain attempt to keep this review under 1500 words, I’ll give it a try.

NC rolled right into “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” for her second number and the Irving Berlin classic never sounded better. I started to get the sense for how unique and cool the evening was going to be when I settled into my seat and realized how well Natalie, her excellent stage band and the ASO were working together. I know they had limited rehearsal time but the result was a perfectly melded, seamless whole … like they had been working together for years.

Top drawer versions of “Summer Sun” and Sinatra’s “Nice and Easy” headlined the early song group and then Natalie took it up a level with one of my favorite Dinah Washington songs, “What a Difference A Day Makes” stirred in amongst three numbers from her dad’s long hit list “Route 66”, “(If I Had To Choose) That Sunday, That Summer” and Chaplin’s gift to Nat — “Smile”.

After slowing things down…

…almost a bit too much (the stage band-ASO cohesion did seem to bobble here just a bit) with Ms. Cole’s Grammy winning “Here’s That Rainy Day”, Natalie kept the tempo in the breather zone with a lesser known but wonderful Shirley Horn tune — “Here’s To Life”. A brief respite before the wicked cool closing set.

The final song group was so good it was just silly…

They dropped a 60 foot or so screen and Natalie sang “Unforgettable” as a duet with her dad while interleaving a photo essay of “Nat & Natalie” family shots across the screen. I’d guess she’s done this probably 2,500 times but I don’t know how Natalie holds it together … it was beautiful. I felt like I was intruding on a private family moment.

On to “L-O-V-E” where, just when I thought the band-ASO weave could not be any tighter, I was proven wrong. A nice “Mr. Melody” followed — the backup singers really stepped up on this number and figured prominently for the remainder of the evening.

The surprise…

Natalie reached into a completely different bin and offered up a rendition of Sting’s “If I Ever Lose My Faith” and it was awesome! (More of Vinnie’s handiwork) The backup singers — under full sail at this point — drove a lovely choral ambiance into the song … very poignant and one of the best Rock crossover titles I’ve ever heard.

I was almost ready to pass out at this point…

…but the last two songs were not to be missed so I swiped a cookie from the guy behind me and stayed upright!

Even at the end of the show the pipes were still blowing strong. Natalie dropped the R&B hammer on us with a category 5 version of “This Will Be” — in a word (Vinnie, if you please…) Awesome!

The encore was a scat-tastic edition of “Let There Be You” (only seemed fitting to wrap with a staple from Nat’s catalog). Natalie and her trumpet man went head to head in a scat vs trumpet battle that was very cool. Trumpeter held his own for quite awhile, but Natalie took him in the end.

On balance it was a perfect evening. Well, my wife ended up stuck in Chicago — certainly not perfect for her — but as performances go, I really don’t think I’ve experienced better.

After 20 years, Natalie truly is…  Still Unforgettable.

 

 

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  • Jim

    You have to call them the Austin Symphony Orchestra because if you pronounce the acronym instead of saying the letters it’s dangerously close to things you don’t want me to type here.

    • Anonymous

      Heh … just the risk you have to take to play in razor’s edge world of the symphonically hip!

  • Holy cow, I should have known you would be there! We, too, found out at the very last minute that she was performing and scrambled for seats. Wow. Utterly AMAZING!!!

    • Anonymous

      I was dumbfounded. I expected a great performance but was braced for the reality of 20+ years (some really tough years) of wear and tear on Natalie … she just crushed it!

  • She’s been in a curious position for the last few years. Obviously she has a voice to tackle the standards, and a legacy she is free to embrace/(exploit?) But she has a track record of her own hits that she almost goes out of her way to dismiss at this point in her career.

    • vs_guy

      Hey Douglas, thanks for stopping by.

      In this recent appearance, I got the sense that Natalie wasn’t leaving her own success behind as much as melding her R&B/Motown stylings with her penchant for the American Songbook … an interesting blend she pulls off well in my opinion.

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