At TD Garden, Bette Midler is funny and wise
By James Reed GLOBE STAFF JUNE 13, 2015
Bette Midler did not earn her nickname, the Divine Miss M, by being prim and proper or the kind of woman you’d take home to Mom. She emerged in New York’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 “Divine Intervention,” 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 ”“ funny, tender, lewd, boastful.
“I remain a triumph of science and fiction,” 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 “Stay With Me,” an emotional powder keg she’s been wailing for more than 30 years, she explained that it’s no longer just an account of unrequited love. It’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 “an avalanche of useless information.” “Everything you need to know, you already do,” she said with a humble bow. And then she delivered a sage rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” 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 can’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. “Caitlyn!” she exclaimed, adding that they had the perfect relationship: “We watched ”˜Beaches’ and painted each other’s toenails.”
Midler got the evening’s biggest laugh when the screen flashed a photo of her snuggling on Tom Brady’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 “Do You Want to Dance?” and the final encore of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy“) and some surprises. She got dolled up as Winifred, the ghastly witch she played in the cult comedy “Hocus Pocus,” to vamp her way through “I Put a Spell on You.” Of the handful of songs she sang from last year’s “It’s the Girls!” her version of TLC’s “Waterfalls” was especially plaintive, a showcase for Midler’s superlative interpretive skills.
Her voice is aging with a natural patina. The sky-scraping high notes were gone on “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “Stay With Me,” but Midler has smartly recast the songs to suit her range. It meant she could sing with gusto and ease both the jazz standard “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and “Beast of Burden,” her underappreciated 1983 cover of the Rolling Stones kiss-off.
Midler sang her tearjerkers, “The Rose” and “From a Distance,” 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 ”“ she’s wise.