Bette Midler Raids the Vaults of Pop History in Intimate Arena Show: Concert Review

Paul Familetti
Bette Midler at Madison Square Garden
Still divine after all these years

Bette Midler sampled her decades-spanning songbook before an adoring New York crowd in her first tour in more than ten years.

Not quite midway through the first New York show of her Divine Intervention tour, Bette Midler slowed the tempo to do what she does best: reinventing pop standards in ways that make you forget the originals. In this case it was TLC's 1995 R&B hit "Waterfalls," theatricalized into a sorrowful moment of emotional reckoning. The most contemporary selection on Midler's recent tribute to girl-group sounds across the decades — the Warner Bros. Records release It's the Girls! — the pared-down song works even better live. It demonstrates that few artists can touch Midler when it comes to transforming a massive arena into a space of melancholy intimacy.

That contradiction between the cavernous 16,000-seat Madison Square Garden and a performer with a taste for the smoky torch song worked mostly to Midler's advantage, allowing her to cast a wide net across her fan base.

"It's 50 shades of gray right here," she said early on, nodding to a clump of seniors sitting down front. Midler's original followers date back to the early '70s, when her retro musical stylings and campy insouciance exploded from the gay niche into the mainstream. They come expecting her vintage hits and trademark sass, both of which she delivered, mincing around the stage more like a frisky terrier pup than a woman about to hit 70. "I'm like vodka," she cooed. "Ageless, odorless and tasteless."

The show is more or less bookended with classic Midler from her 1972 debut album, The Divine Miss M, starting a couple of songs in with her swoony invitation, "Do You Want To Dance?," and wrapping with the Andrews Sisters' exultant "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."

But MSG wasn't just packed with old-timers. The audience also had its share of thirtysomethings who no doubt discovered Midler via her hit screen comedies of the 1980s, or through her epically popular 1988 weepie, Beaches. She performed three songs from that film: the peppy "I've Still Got My Health," her gorgeous if somewhat over-emoted cover of Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" and the syrupy ballad heard at a thousand weddings and funerals, "Wind Beneath My Wings," the first of two encores.

The rousing response to a hammy cover of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You," with Midler and backup girls mugging in full witches garb from the 1993 Disney comedy Hocus Pocus, suggests even younger pockets in the audience.

Interludes such as that one of course are an arena spectacle requirement, but the projections splashed across the proscenium and rear panels generally added little to the act. Even the busy Wizard of Oz-style preamble to Midler's entrance, breezing in on a purple tornado before launching into "Divine Intervention," was more amusing in concept than execution.

Midler doesn't need help from a lot of bells and whistles to own the audience. When she segued from wry cracks about her age into the brash self-celebration of "I Look Good," a holdover from her Vegas residency, there was vocal agreement from the house. She does indeed look sensational, starting in a baby-pink bejeweled mini that showcased those still-shapely gams, and finishing in floor-length red sequins.

The part of the set list devoted to numbers from It's the Girls! has been scaled back since earlier tour stops. But in addition to "Waterfalls," Midler performed an electric, accelerated version of the Exciters' 1962 hit "Tell Him" (with this year's edition of her eternal backup trio, the Staggering Harlettes, shimmying up a storm in pink fringe), then rewound a decade into a mellow groove for the DeCastro Sisters' "Teach Me Tonight." The vocal harmonies here and elsewhere were beautiful.

The ability to navigate those time-travel pop transitions so fluidly is what makes Midler such a durable performer. She shuffled wistful jazz standards  — Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away," Ella Fitzgerald's "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" — with kickass raunch rock in her 1983 cover of the Stones' "Beast of Burden." After the latter number she admitted, "I toured all over Europe in a leather jacket and a mullet and nobody bought that f—in' song." She sweetened some of the bitterness in Leonard Cohen's hypnotic dirge, "Everybody Knows," using a funny takedown of the social-media epidemic as her lead-in. The Kardashians may be an easy target at this point, but it's a hoot to watch Midler roll her eyes at that dubious phenomenon.

Midler took a breather during the set with a mock-In Memoriam segment backed by an instrumental of "The Glory of Love," in which a montage of performance clips laid to rest her notoriously tacky mermaid act, Dolores De Lago, the toast of Chicago. And she trotted out another old favorite with her bawdy Sophie Tucker jokes, woven into an over-extended medley that included "Optimistic Voices" and "Bird in the Hand." The laborious setup for that section, with a giant dancing egg, smacked of Vegas-style padding.

Fans are unlikely to complain, however, when Midler gives so unstintingly throughout the evening. She's always known how to pour on the pathos in her songs, at times to excess, notably in the hymn-like "From a Distance." But she has a sense of humor about it, deadpanning after one soul-baring exhibition, "I am a little bit over the top, I'll admit it."

Backed by 12 musicians who regularly stepped forward into the spotlight, including a funk-heavy brass section, Midler's voice has not diminished. It still has all the richness, warmth, the personality and soaring power that put her on the map, and while it can get a little frayed around the edges, she makes that huskiness work for her. This was especially apparent late in the show, in her delicate rendition of "The Rose," with her right arm raised like the Statue of Liberty, and even more so in another song from that 1979 movie, "Stay With Me," a cathartic plea full of raw feeling that met with zero resistance from the ecstatic crowd.

Midler has one more show at the Garden on Friday, before wrapping her New York leg Monday June 29 at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn and then heading to the U.K.

Set List:

Divine Intervention
I Look Good
I've Still Got My Health
Do You Want to Dance?
Throw It Away
Tell Him
Teach Me Tonight
Waterfalls
Everybody Knows
I Think It's Going to Rain Today
I Put a Spell on You
Optimistic Voices/Bird in the Hand
Beast of Burden
Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most
The Rose
From a Distance
Stay With Me

Encores:

Wind Beneath My Wings
Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy

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