Friday, April 1, 2016

Johnny Mathis – As Magical Now as 60 Years Ago

A slice of magic descended on Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater Florida tonight, as Columbia Records icon Johnny Mathis took the stage in celebration of 60(!!!) years performing. I brought my mother along as a Mother’s Day gift, as he is her favorite artist. What I didn’t know until tonight was that the last time she saw him in concert was 1959; so it was a very special occasion for her. I’ve been a fan since I was young, Mathis’ voice indeed permeated my childhood. The last time I saw him in concert was on this same stage, but nearly 30 years ago. Back then his voice was a cannon, with limitless power and range. My expectations were that the 80 year-old Mathis of today would have lost a step or three; but that’s what I get for presupposing what might be, rather than just enjoying what was.

In truth, Mathis has retained nearly all of that power and range, but the instrument is different now; slightly muted, slightly mellower, aging with the grace and beauty that a fine tone wood in a guitar does. There was a hint of crackle that suggested some slight vocal fatigue, but Mathis didn’t pull any punches at all. Many singers, as they age (Billy Joel and Elton John come to mind), compensate for that aging by dropping the key on songs to a more manageable place; but not the master. Not one song was moved down from where it was when he cut records in the 50s and 60s. He had from F2 all the way up to G#4, in his chest voice, with clarity and precision.

This show was a master class in vocal technique and showmanship. If there is a particular strength in his singing, it is the nuance and complexity of his vocal delivery. After 60 years, his singing is utterly effortless; his voice floats through all registers with a combination of sure-footed grace, and a gentle subtlety not seen in really any singer of this generation. His articulation is singularly elegant, and each note is placed with astonishing accuracy. Most impressive of all is his phrasing. He extracts more out of a lyric than any singer I think I’ve ever heard. He performed the Lennon/McCartney classic “Yesterday”, which has been one of the most covered songs in history, with over 2200 versions. Mathis’ interpretation was linear and smooth, but with a rubato glow and tender turns of phrasing that gave the song more emotional pull than any version I’ve encountered short of Sir Paul.

Mathis has used a mic technique over the years to compensate for his massive dynamic range; pulling the mic in and out, and pulling it on and off axis to adjust to the power of the note he is singing. It is second nature to him now; but this might have been one tiny flaw in the delivery this time. His voice is more mature, and doesn’t have quite the thunder it did in years past – but the mic technique is still used at the same intensity as in years past. This caused some moments of mix imbalance; the sound man had to chase him around a little bit; but it was so minor that it did not detract in any way from the overall beauty of the performance.

The program consisted of a mix of everyone’s favorites, a few obscure pieces, and a playful closing performance of Brazil. The audience, who consisted mostly of the demographic you might imagine, was rapt and insanely appreciative. It was a joy and an honor to watch these people who have loved Johnny Mathis for more than half a century laugh, cry, sing, shout out platitudes, and fall all over themselves ovating the performances. I counted eight standing ovations during the show.

Another stroke of genius was the guest artist. Most shows have an opening act, and this one was no exception, but his set occurred at the END of Mathis’ first set, and before the 20-minute intermission. The artist was Gary Mule Deer; a singing comedian. Visually, he was Johnny Cash, having gone to Lyle Lovett’s hairdresser. Musically, think Cash meets Roger Miller. Comedically, he ripped through Borscht Belt/Branson humor and recycled Internet jokes, interspersed with reimagined country songs, commercials, and an inspired technique of wandering the stage using different microphones, or sometimes using none. Sounds lame and weird, I know, but he had perfect timing, unique and flavorful delivery, and was a perfect choice for this particular crowd. I haven’t laughed that hard in a while; and we collectively roared our appreciation. See him in action below:

Mathis tours with a core three piece rhythm section (including drummer Joe Lizama who has been touring consistently with Mathis almost 35 years), and contracts local musicians for short duration tours to fill out the two-dozen piece orchestra. They are extraordinarily tight, precise, and provide a spectacular musical backdrop for Mathis’ still-soaring vocal. The orchestra was nimble, rich, and fluid; taking advantage of time-honored arrangements that were perfectly suited to augment the vocals.

I came away from this evening with a thrilling sense of nostalgia and awe; Johnny still has it. His timeless performances will endure for years to come.

I checked YouTube and found a recent performance (about a year old) that gives you a pretty decent taste of what we got this evening. Enjoy…

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