Bette Midler did not earn her nickname, the Divine Miss M, by being prim and proper or the kind of woman youâ€™d take home to Mom. She emerged in New Yorkâ€™s underground in the early 1970s potty-mouthed and in your face, an heir to Mae West and precursor to Madonna.
Her new tour, aptly titled â€œDivine Intervention,â€ was an astonishing moment to reflect on how Midler is evolving not only with the times, but in her relationship with her deep catalog. Her performance at TD Garden on Friday night, with a full band and a trio of backup singers, was almost everything fans could want from their diva â€“ funny, tender, lewd, boastful.
â€œI remain a triumph of science and fiction,â€ Midler quipped. (And to answer the question she posed early on, yes, she does look fabulous.)
More than that, though, Midler allowed herself to be vulnerable, and not in a way that felt scripted from one tour stop to the next. At 69, she has grown and learned an immense amount from her decades in showbiz and now brings that knowledge and resonance to her material.
Resurrecting â€œStay With Me,â€ an emotional powder keg sheâ€™s been wailing for more than 30 years, she explained that itâ€™s no longer just an account of unrequited love. Itâ€™s a meditation on losing our loved ones but taking comfort in how they stay with us all our lives, hovering like little bits of silver.
Midler bemoaned how overstimulated our culture has become in our quest to tweet, link, and share everything, and surmised that it was all just â€œan avalanche of useless information.â€ â€œEverything you need to know, you already do,â€ she said with a humble bow. And then she delivered a sage rendition of Leonard Cohenâ€™s â€œEverybody Knowsâ€ with Lotte Lenya-like conviction, a performance so intuitive that it suggested Midler should reinvent herself as a world-weary chanteuse on her next album.
OK, the show was pretty outrageous, too. She recycled her Sophie Tucker routine, in which Midler channels the sass and spirit of the Jewish comedian to tell naughty jokes that canâ€™t be printed here. (Bette was blue long before parental-advisory and NSFW warnings.)
She also bragged about her sexual romps from back in the day and narrated a montage of Photoshopped images of her in amorous embraces with everyone from Richard Nixon to Vladimir Putin. There was even Midler canoodling with Bruce Jenner. â€œCaitlyn!â€ she exclaimed, adding that they had the perfect relationship: â€œWe watched â€˜Beachesâ€™ and painted each otherâ€™s toenails.â€
Midler got the eveningâ€™s biggest laugh when the screen flashed a photo of her snuggling on Tom Bradyâ€™s chest. (FYI, she was the first one to suggest he deflate those balls, she joked.)
Meanwhie, the set list was thoughtful, spanning the usual suspects (a sublime â€œDo You Want to Dance?â€ and the final encore of â€œBoogie Woogie Bugle Boyâ€) and some surprises. She got dolled up as Winifred, the ghastly witch she played in the cult comedy â€œHocus Pocus,â€ to vamp her way through â€œI Put a Spell on You.â€ Of the handful of songs she sang from last yearâ€™s â€œItâ€™s the Girls!â€ her version of TLCâ€™s â€œWaterfallsâ€ was especially plaintive, a showcase for Midlerâ€™s superlative interpretive skills.
Her voice is aging with a natural patina. The sky-scraping high notes were gone on â€œWind Beneath My Wingsâ€ and â€œStay With Me,â€ but Midler has smartly recast the songs to suit her range. It meant she could sing with gusto and ease both the jazz standard â€œSpring Can Really Hang You Up the Mostâ€ and â€œBeast of Burden,â€ her underappreciated 1983 cover of the Rolling Stones kiss-off.
Midler sang her tearjerkers, â€œThe Roseâ€ and â€œFrom a Distance,â€ right in a row, each one sending up glowing cellphones that created a whole arena of ghostly fireflies. It was beautiful and a reminder that Miss M is no longer just divine â€“ sheâ€™s wise.