Jim Farber Takes Nasty Taste Out of My Mouth From The New York Times Review

Back and Bette-r than ever

Bette Midler, at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut on New Year’s Eve, moved to Nassau Coliseum over the weekend.

Bette Midler and her backup singers belt out a number at Nassau Saturday night for the Divine Miss M’s adoring fans.

Cher. Streisand. Tina Turner. They’ve all retired from touring in the last few years. Which leaves Bette Mider, at 58, as the last of our older female superstars still willing to hit the road.

And she’s hitting it with gusto on her new “Kiss My Brass” tour. It’s Bette’s first show in four years and her biggest to date.

It’s also the star’s loudest – given the inclusion of the brass section alluded to in its title.

Perhaps most notably of all, it’s the first Bette tour to include something as sentimental as – I-kid-you-not – an un-ironic tribute to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

“Brass,” which first swung into the tri-state area on Wednesday at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, and which hit Nassau Coliseum Saturday, tempers Bette’s eagerly coarse persona with more nostalgia than any show of the star’s 30-year career. That came across in more than just her warm performance of Fred Rogers’ ode to childhood dependence, “I Like To Be Told.”

“How did we go from a song like ‘Tenderly’ to ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’?,” asked Bette in one of her many critiques of modern culture.

“These days you’re not considered a serious entertainer unless you dress like a ‘ho’,” she said, going on to aim zingers at Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

It’s a long way from the free-wheeling sensibility of the gay baths, where Bette played in the early ’70s.

Luckily, the show’s softer edge didn’t diminish its pleasure.

Also, you should know, the two-hour and 15-minute show did boast plenty of bawdy jokes, salty language, and trashy fun. But it was all in the service of stressing old-fashioned entertainment, which only amplified the singer’s traditional side.

In a sense, Bette has always been a traditionalist. Long before the current vogue for re-interpreting standards (as epitomized by Rod Stewart), she helped keep songs of the pre-rock era thriving in front of a large and vital audience.

At Nassau Coliseum, she dipped far back into history for Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” a song included on her second album from 1973. The singer had never before featured it on a national tour. A highlight of the night, her performance allowed Bette to show the more supple qualities of her voice, and the yearning she can conjure.

Bette reached back even farther for “Boogie Woogie Buggle Boy,” one of several big band swing numbers used here to show off her five-man horn section. Given Bette’s long-time use of those instruments on album, it’s a wonder it took her this long to feature them live. The brass, borrowed from The Royal Crown Revue, gave all the songs extra punch.

Bette upped the evening’s pizzazz with its splashy theatrics. Inspired by Coney Island, the staging featured beach murals, cabanas, ferris wheels, and even a merry-go-round horse that whisked the singer on and off stage in act one.

The tour also included her first use of a filmed comedy skit (the better to give the star time to catch her breath). It featured Judge Judy condemning Bette for the canceled sitcom she so publicly detested. Judy sentenced her to “apologize to everyone who ever owned, or might have owned, a television set.”

Of course, there was also the usual set of Sophie Tucker jokes, plus an over-long revival of her circus sideshow character Delores Del-Lago, which included rewrites of Broadway songs ranging from “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” to “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

“I may be a freak,” said Delores at one point, “But I’m a freak with a dream.”

Indeed, Bette remains a glorious freak in modern pop. She’s the only major star whose repertoire locates an improbable connection between R&B, blues-rock, standards, show tunes, girl-group hits and more. In this one show, Bette offered songs associated with Clooney (to whom she recently recorded a tribute album), Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Percy Sledge, Bob Fosse, The Andrews Sisters, and even the aforementioned Mr. Rogers. She was equally convincing on Waits’ moving ballad “Shiver Me Timbers” as on the glitzy ’60s wedding standard “Chapel Of Love.”

Given her age, it’s no surprise that Bette has mellowed some. Luckily, the mild dimming has made her no less divine.

“Kiss My Brass” comes to Madison Square Garden Jan. 17-18.

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