Some stars age like fine wine.
Bette Midler told her sold-out audience at the Garden Thursday that she ages â€œlike vodkaâ€:
â€œAgeless, odorless, and tasteless,â€ she quipped.
And thank God for that.
At 69, Bette continues to prove the resilience of the broad and bawdy character she has played for over four decades now. Itâ€™s an approach with antecedents that snake back nearly a century, to the early days of vaudeville. But at the first of Midlerâ€™s three area shows – part of her first major tour in a decade – she made both age and history work in her favor.
At the showâ€™s start, the singer/actress/comic trumpeted her ability to keep it together after nearly seven decades of wear and tear. Early on, she featured â€œI Look Good,â€ followed by the wry â€œIâ€™ve Still Got My Health,â€ which she first recorded on the â€œBeachesâ€ soundtrack.
She next went into a song which accented her deep catalogue – a dreamy cover of Bobby Freemanâ€™s hit â€œDo You Wanna Danceâ€ – which appeared on her 1972 debut, â€œThe Divine Miss M.â€
Bette has dedicated a good portion of her career since that album to preserving pop classics, many from a pre-rock era, a fresh approach in the early â€˜70s.
â€œSome people rescue dogs and cats,â€ the star said. â€œI rescue old songs.â€
During the first half of the â€œDivine Interventionâ€ show, Midler featured her most recent resurrection – of girl group songs from the â€˜40s through the â€˜60s, titled â€œItâ€™s The Girls!â€
Her version of The Excitersâ€™ â€œTell Himâ€ lived up the albumâ€™s exclamation point with a properly manic vocal. Bette proved just as adept moving backwards (to the moon-june era relic â€œTeach Me Tonight,â€ by The DeCastro Sisters), or forwards (to TLCâ€™s â€œWaterfalls,â€ the â€œnewbieâ€ of the batch, from the â€˜90s).
Here, and elsewhere, Bette took an actorly approach to the songs, reading certain lines like grand speeches. She bored deep into the drama of Randy Newmanâ€™s â€œI Think Itâ€™s Gonna Rain Today,â€ sometimes layering on the ham.
Likewise, her jokes throughout the nearly two hour show could invite groans along with the giggles. But Bette is nothing if not self-aware. So she leavened any moldiness with an admission, early on, that her show would â€œrepeat everything from the past that I can remember.â€
True to her word, she featured a video salute to her old Delores De Lago character, employed, essentially, as a time-killer for a costume change. She also hauled out an array of ancient Sophie Tucker jokes, delivered with just enough zest and affection to redeem their familiarity.
Much of the schtick during the night warmly winked at the indignities of aging – both her own and the audienceâ€™s.
Betteâ€™s topical material treated modern technology with the skepticism of a proud coot. She ranked on Facebook, Tinder, Grinder, and Facebook.
â€œRemember when being followed was a scary thing?,â€ she asked an audience seasoned enough to get it.
For all the camp and sauciness, the star has an uncanny ability to turn to something sober fast. She has the intelligence, and the dark wit, to deliver Leonard Cohenâ€™s â€œEverybody Knows,â€ as well as the abiding pipes to make The Stonesâ€™ â€œBeast of Burdenâ€ stirring.
The breadth of her character can even redeem the enormous corn of hits like â€œWind Beneath My Wingsâ€ and â€œFrom A Distance.â€ While insufferable on album, the live context drew on the fullness of Betteâ€™s persona to make them surprisingly touching.
Even more impressive were the pop culture connections the show drew. What other arena-level performer can still bring to the stage a â€˜60s rock-blues blow-out like â€œStay With Me,â€ a jazz standard like â€œSpring Can Really Hang You Up The Mostâ€ and a swing smash from the â€˜40s like â€œBoogie Woogie Bugle Boyâ€?
By bringing them all together, Bette proved herself our last link to a vanishing past – and, so, a genuine gift to the present.
Bette Midlerâ€™s â€œDivine Interventionâ€ show returns to The Garden Friday and plays Barclays Center Monday.