Tony Bennett – Live at the Sahara – Las Vegas, 1964 (review)

Tony Bennett – Live at the Sahara: Las Vegas, 1964 (RPM/Columbia Legacy) review \

A sizzling, early-peak performance live set from the legendary vocalist

There was something about Vegas in the Sixties.  Not everyone made it there.  But, if you did, it usually meant your career was on the rise.  There was a looseness that performers enjoyed.  Far out of the watchful eye of the snobby New York press, they could relax a little.  Certainly Frank Sinatra knew this (read our review of his Best of Vegas).

When Tony Bennett walked into the Sahara Club in April of 1964, the marquee read: “Moment of Truth,” and indeed it was.  Not only did he play a song with that title to open and close his show, it also was a statement of purpose. This marked the singer’s first concert as a headliner in the famed city, and he knew the stakes were high.

The disc opens with the announcement that “this performance is being recorded for a new album by Columbia Records,” yet, for whatever reason, it was never released until 2011, as part of the mammoth Complete Collection box.  Now, for the first time, Live at the Sahara will be released on its own.

The concert sounds fabulous – there is energy in this room, and you can hear it bouncing off the walls; it’s an immediacy that you don’t get from a large hall.  Bennett is flanked by his longtime pianist Ralph Sharon, who adds so much color to these performances with his melodic playing.  The bass is hot in the mix, giving everything a groove feel.  While Bennett is most closely associated with small jazz combos, here he’s augmented by the fine Louis Basil Orchestra, which really adds punch with the horns, sax and flute, definitely showcased on the swinging “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.”

Bennett also shows off his ability to switch gears with ease – the sparse arrangement of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is spine-tingling, while he begins the surprising bossa nova number, “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars,” acapella.  “From This Moment” has a frenetic feel, which recalls bebop, then slows to half-time in the middle, while “Firefly” is pure Dixieland.

Of course, things were a lot more laid back in Vegas.  He does a parody of his smash “Rags to Riches,” where he jokes about his Italian / New York heritage.  There’s also a “Comedy Routine” right in the middle of the show, which features legendary funny men Milton Berle, Danny Thomas, and Mickey Rooney.

And, considering “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is a song that Bennett was expected to sing every single night, he still gives it a tender performance, that segues into “I Wanna Be Around,” and then back again.

Of course, the same year this concert was recorded saw the Beatles invade America, and Bennett certainly felt their presence as he struggled to keep his music relevant.  Amazingly, he’s still out performing today, wowing crowds and telling true stories of a man that was there.  Live at the Sahara: Las Vegas, 1964 is a captivating concert album that showcases a legend at his peak.  –Tony Peters