Don’t Label Bette Or She’s Bound To Kick Your Brass!

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Photo: Courtesy of Barbara Sussman

Bette’s new tour of duty
The Sentinel

Bette Midler charmed a Bradley Center crowd in 1999. Her fans will get another high-energy does of the Midler magic Dec. 17.

Dare to label Bette Midler a conservative and you risk being tossed out a window into a body of water inhabited by Midler’s fish-tailed alter ego, Delores del Lago.

After all, during her 40-year career, Midler has adopted highways, cleaned up New York City’s neglected parks and nurtured community development.

More than that, she spearheaded the gay liberation movement by performing, with exuberant nonchalance, before guys clad only in towels at New York’s once notorious Continental Baths, helping to speed up the mainstreaming of gay culture.

However, when it comes to selecting the material she’ll perform during “Kiss My Brass” – the big-scale, multi-city concert tour that opens tonight in Chicago and stops next Wednesday at the Bradley Center – Midler tinctures ambition with conservatism.

She knows the songs her fans want – “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Wind Beneath My Wings” among them – and aims not to disappoint the faithful.

But this year Midler is also returning to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll with several of the songs she belted out in her first movie, “The Rose,” in which she played a Janis Joplin-like diva, talented yet furiously self-destructive.

She’s also introducing a segment during which she offers songs identified with her friend and girlhood idol, the late Rosemary Clooney.

Last week, Midler’s album, “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook,” received a Grammy nomination for best traditional pop vocal album. Midler will be competing with Clooney herself, nominated posthumously in the same category forher album “The Last Concert.”

“I always loved her,” Midler said of Clooney during a recent telephone interview from her Los Angeles home. “I always knew (Clooney’s) music. It was part of my childhood. I was born in 1945, and in those days it took a while for mainland music to reach Hawaii (where Midler grew up), so I didn’t hear much rock ‘n’ roll until I was about 9.”

Clooney’s voice fascinated her.

“I remember her presence very well,” Midler said, “and the type of atmosphere she created. I had a very strong attachment to her.

“I really do love the female voice. I’m a singer, so to me it’s interesting to hear another singer.”

Roots in a dream
The idea of putting her own signature on “The Rosemary Clooney Songbook” was brought to her “out of the blue” by Barry Manilow, who had accompanied her on the piano during the fondly remembered, if still a mite scandalous, nights of singing at the Continental Baths.

“I was almost afraid to return the call,” Midler said. “I’d thought Barry was through with me long ago. But when I did call him back, he said, ‘Bette, I had a dream. I had a dream that you and I did a tribute to Rosemary.’ ”

The album, recorded shortly after Clooney died in June 2002, has been a big success. As a result, Midler incorporated such Clooney standards as “Tenderly” and “You’ll Never Know” into the repertoire for her current tour.

Midler, the ardent fan, and Clooney, the established star, became friends after Midler’s move to the mainland, first to New York City, then Los Angeles and Hollywood, in the 1970s.

“People loved Rosemary,” Midler said. “She was such a wonderful human being. I last saw her at a tribute in her honor by the Society of Singers, a group of mostly big-band singers who look after their own. Everybody was there: k.d. lang, Linda Ronstadt, Barry Manilo. ”

Midler paused for a long moment, then added wistfully:

“If anybody needed an example of how to be loved by your peers, she really was. She was so loved.”

Training for a tour
Preparing for a rugged, continent-spanning tour such as this – Midler’s first in four years – has been a physical and emotional challenge, the 58-year-old star said.

Never one to stint where her admirers are concerned, Midler turns every concert appearance into a near-encyclopedic compendium of the songs and characters with which she is associated, many of them in-your-face.

Big production numbers such as the “Delores del Lago” routine are interspersed with single-spotlight interludes and often outrageous “Soph” jokes, reminiscent of the bawdy wit of pioneering cafe entertainer Sophie Tucker.

This time around, Midler said, she has tried to de-emphasize the dancing and stress the singing as a way of lightening the demands on her seemingly limitless stamina.

Still, getting a two-hour show ready for touring is almost always as painful as the ultimate performances are exhilarating.

“The shows are fun,” she said, “but the rehearsal is very, very tough. There are a lot of elements, a lot of personalities. Only a couple of the people have toured with me before. There’s been a big turnover. It’s a struggle, and you have to get used to new people. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Nothing personal, just business.”

Once the show is on the road, performing is, in effect, an aerobic exercise. Before setting off, however, Midler works hard to get in shape, running the treadmill and using the Stairmaster.

Mulling her options
Besides touring, the Divine One is dividing her time between feature films and the concert stage. She’s a member of the ensemble cast of the big-screen remake of “The Stepford Wives,” which is scheduled to hit theaters in June.

“I’m happy wherever I am,” Midler replied in a distinctly un-diva-ish manner. “I try to be right there and do it as I can. Each has something to recommend it.”

But she made it clear that there is one vehicle she won’t try ever again: a weekly television sitcom. Her last venture in that direction, the 2000 series “Bette,” was a misfire, and it taught her “a good lesson.”

“TV is too hard, so hard, so terribly hard,” she said. “It’s a writer’s medium, and the writer is king, and if you don’t have a really healthy, really productive writer . . . ,” her voice trailing off.

By comparison, a tour like her “Kiss My Brass” extravaganza is safe, familiar territory.

“I enjoy the crowds,” she said. “I love the sound of the laughter, the applause, the stillness when they’re listening to a ballad. What keeps me going is really the crew. I have a big staff and a lot of support and try to live properly – like a monk, actually. You don’t see a lot, and you don’t go out as a group. But it’s what I do, and how I make my living, and I’m used to it.”

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