KMB Review: Bette Galvanizes Grand Rapids!


Photo: Spark St. Jude

Delightful, Demented, Divine: Bette comes to town with her Kiss My Brass Tour, really delivers the goods
Friday, March 12, 2004
By Sue Merrell
The Grand Rapids Press

Bette Midler doesn’t need flying carrousel horses or dancing cabanas. Her soaring voice was the special effect that stole the show Thursday night at Van Andel Arena.

But even though the Divine Miss M can mexmerize an audience of more than 9,000 with her hypnotic melodies, her two-and-a-half-hour show is a kaleidoscope of surprises.

One minute she’s dishing up the salty humor of Sophie Tucker, and the next she’s doing a touching duet of the kiddie-feel-good tune “I Like to Be Told” with a video of the late Fred Rogers. Every number left the audience wondering “What’s next?” And somehow she kept coming up with something new and even better.

A really big show

The huge Kiss My Brass Tour, featuring a 10-piece band with five horns, wrapped each song with a rich, big-band sound. It was all framed with a gigantic Victorian amusement park set with hundreds of lights.

Midler arrived on a colorful carrousel horse that flew in from one side of the stage. Throughout the evening, park themes came up, including a huge, lighted-swan, tunnel-of-love ride for “Chapel of Love.”

A quartet of sideshow banners introduced Delores Delago, a singing mermaid character who has been part of Midler’s concerts for years. This fish-tales segment was one of the funniest and most amazing parts of the show, as Midler and her backup trio, the Harlettes, hopped, flopped and rolled around the stage in their legless mermaid costumes while singing bits of rewritten Broadway tunes such as “All That Shad” to “Chicago’s” “All That Jazz.” Then Bette made the big “Hello Dolly!” entrance, gliding down stairs in a chair and quipping “Try this, Cher!”

Midler sprinkled the evening with banter, much of it R-rated. She talked about Grand Rapids and told the audience she would like to come back in the summer, short as it may be: “What day in August is that?”

She claimed to be exhausted after the second song, but her vocal power and fancy footwork kept up strong all night. She may not have done the splits like the Harlettes, but the 58-year-old dynamo sashayed around the stage, bobbing her blond curls with more sass than any of the younger singers.

“I’m not retiring, and you can’t make me,” she repeated several times.

The best song of the evening, hands down, was a torchy, soul-stirring “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Midler belted with such intensity that her body shivered like Janis Joplin — and many in the audience were shivering, shouting and applauding.

Such a voice

She sang several ballads that showed off the clear, rich tones that earned her the Divine moniker. She meandered through a lazy arrangement of “Skylark” and introduced a thoughtful new song about Sept. 11, “Will We Learn,” that led into one of the highlights of the evening, a big-band enriched “From a Distance.”

But there were plenty of fast-paced numbers as well, including her 1973 No. 1 hit, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” complete with a smashing trumpet solo. She offered two numbers from her latest album, “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook,” the upbeat “Come On-A My House” and the more sedate “Tenderly.”

A trio of video screens that could be used in various configurations provided visuals for several songs. There was even an over-the-top Judge Judy segment during which Midler had to answer complaints about her failed television sitcom, “Bette.” The video, unfortunately, went over about as well as the sitcom, but it served its main purpose of allowing time for one of the dozen or so costume changes of the evening.

Of course, Midler saved the best for last, with “Wind Beneath My Wings,” closing the show and several in the audience waving lighters. Then she came out in knee-high boots for a “Keep On Rockin’ ” encore, told the audience Grand Rapids was “the happiest town we’ve been to,” and used a transition about the coming of spring to lead into her final, and most recognized song, “The Rose.”

It was such a hopeful ending, it made driving home on icy roads just a touch warmer.

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