It’s probably not a surprise to most fans that Tony Bennett, who appears at the Paramount Theatre Thursday, Nov. 6, comes off far better than Lady Gaga, his musical sweetheart of late, on their punchy but problematic new album, “Cheek to Cheek.”
But it’s certainly telling. Relaxed and in total control of his material, at 88 Bennett is still a master of his craft. When a song demands it, he can croon a sustained note — like the word “cheek” in the title track — with a rich vibrato that feels effortless but passionate. And when the mood calls for tenderness (“Don’t Wait Too Long”) or a laugh (“Goody Goody”), he lands right in the pocket, too.
Gaga, by contrast, may be the first singer in history to yell her way through the verse of the great Billy Strayhorn ballad, “Lush Life.” Make no mistake, the lady can swing and also sing in tune, two skills many auto-tuned pop queens lack. But her harsh, brittle, monochromatic voice comes off something like Judy Garland without vulnerability or charm.
It’s too bad, because Gaga did a lot better on stage on the PBS special with Bennett, which aired last week. Given the opportunity to mug and flirt — and change costumes multiple times — Gaga the actress invested the proceedings with the playful spirit that made her duet with Bennett on “The Lady is a Tramp” a YouTube hit and one of the best tracks on his 2011 “Duets” album. And when the couple does nudge-nudge-wink-wink routines — “Firefly,” “Goody Goody,” “I Won’t Dance” — the charm flows out in buckets.
But if you want to prep yourself for the Paramount, best direct your attention to Bennett’s new compilation, “The Classics.” Because that’s what you’re going to hear at the theater. We’re talking about the slow, steady build of “For Once in My Life,” which never fails to run chills up the crowd’s back; “How Do You Keep the Music Playing,” that rare song written for married grown-ups; the ebullient “New York, New York” and, of course, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which Bennett, the consummate professional, still makes his fans feel he’s singing for the first time — just for them.
When Bennett is on stage, it’s clear that he still loves to sing and still loves life. And it’s contagious. It’s very difficult to leave one of his concerts feeling bad. Perhaps hanging around with folks like Lady Gaga has helped him to stay so young. If so, we owe her no small amount of gratitude, even if she is not quite yet in his league.
But then, who is?
8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6, at the Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $50-$150 (877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org).
Paul de Barros (206-464-3247 or firstname.lastname@example.org) covers music at blogs.seattletimes.com/soundposts/ or follow him on Twitter @pdebarros