Albany A-Ga-Ga Over Bette (Thanks Mark!)

Midler finds wild success in excess
Albany Times Union
By STEVE BARNES, Arts editor
First published: Friday, October 8, 2004

ALBANY — Bette Midler is so over the top and so self-aware of her excesses that she pre-empts most conventional criticism. Let yourself be overwhelmed and you can’t help but love her.

During her 2-hour concert at the Pepsi Arena on Thursday night, Midler was by turns bawdy, maudlin, ethereal, defiant, pathetic and hilarious. She was also always spectacular, with a voice, body and comic timing that seem only to have improved with age.

On a set that resembled a turn-of-the-last-century theater at Coney Island, Midler entered atop a carousel horse, flying in from backstage, and she exited the same way 75 minutes later to the heartbreaking strains of “Shiver Me Timbers.” In between, Midler sang more than a dozen songs, changed costume at least four times, rode a giant lighted bicycle shaped like a swam, cracked jokes about Albany in her own persona and, as the bawdy senior citizen Sophie, told much ruder jokes, mostly about the male anatomy.

And that was just the first set.

Much of the time Midler is a manic performer, often running about — or lying down on — the stage. It’s funny and antic, and when she dances between 30-year-old video images of herself while singing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” or does a Broadway medley full of seafood puns and lyrics (think bowler hats, gloves and a big number from “Chicago” reworked as “All That Shad”), you’re glad the camp sensibility hasn’t left her.

That’s all great and satisfying fun, and it helps the evening feel complete. (It also probably makes people feel they got their $50 to $150 worth to see a grand staircase, movable beach cabanas, a mermaid-wheelchair kickline and dozens of hot-air-ballon lanterns descending from the ceiling.)

But what’s really best and truest about Midler is her singing. It’s always been her particular genius to make the grotesque palatable (“Wind Between My Wings,” “From a Distance”), the cute genuinely touching (duet with a video of Mister Rogers on “I Like to Be Told”), and the impressive genuinely inspiring.

Her rendition of “When a Man Loves a Woman” showed a fierce passion that didn’t need any costumes or jokes. Finally, just before the end, Midler reappeared in a miniskirt and high leather boots. She brought her dozen-member band and three singing, dancing Harlettes downstage with her to churn through “Keep on Rockin’,” also from “The Rose.” The song stormed, it roared, it rocked. After that, there wasn’t any to do but sing “The Rose,” in majestic unison sung with the audience. Concert moments rarely get more perfect.


Where: Pepsi Arena, 51 South Pearl St., Albany

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Highlights: Midler’s jokes about Albany, “When a Man Loves a Woman” and Midler singing, in unison with the crowd, “The Rose.”

The crowd: About 9,000, well over half female and wildly happy to be there.

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