For those worried that decades of easy listening ballads like Wind Beneath My Wings and the sugary sermon From a Distance had excised the divine out of Miss M, fret not. The bawdy ol’ girl only took one song into her new Divine Intervention Tour to remind longtime fans why they fell for her in the first place.
“I’m so glad my fans can still drive at night,” Midler, 69, cracked as she surveyed her clearly well-heeled audience that paid a top ticket price of $450 to witness the opening night of her 22-city North American tour at Hard Rock Live at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood Friday night.
“There are 50 shades of gray in this section right here,” Midler sassed to a group up front as she strolled from one end of the stage to the other, a diva in perpetual motion who assesses herself with a knowing wink.
“I’m like vodka. Ageless. Odorless. And tasteless.”
Amid the barbs, the costume changes, the engaging banter, and the oh-so-filthy and wonderfully ageless Sophie Tucker jokes, Midler sang, too. Quite well, actually.
Midler doesn’t have all of her high notes anymore. Nor has she the raw power that fueled the original performances of Stay With Me, from her Oscar-nominated turn in The Rose (1979), or her punchy cover of the Rolling Stones’ Beast of Burden, first recorded for her overlooked No Frills album in 1983. But after a thriving five-decade career in pop music who still does?
Midler’s vocals, overall, proved remarkably solid and agile through a taxing, 25-song, two-hour concert where the focus is always on the star. She has a polished, yet winning 14-piece group of backing musicians, which included a five-piece horn section, “The best band I ever had,” and her trademark backing vocalists, the three Staggering Harlettes. Nevertheless, it’s Midler working the stage, hard, at all times.
Midler, on high heels and in a short pink dress that revealed her trainer has earned that paycheck, appeared winded, or at least she joked that she was after sprinting through the zippy Cole Porter classic, Miss Otis Regrets.
“Miss Otis regrets she came too late in the show. Too peppy,” Midler said, feigning exhaustion, before bringing the tempo down with a tender rendition of The Rose. The Amanda McBroom composition remains Midler’s least contrived and best ballad, for which she won a 1980 female vocal Grammy over formidable competition from Guilty-era Barbra Streisand.
Stay With Me, delivered soon after, late in the set, and also from The Rose, was the concert’s indisputable highlight. Emotional, soulful, Midler tore into the devastating lyrics of loss and longing with a surprising reserve of energy. While the delivery was slightly tamer than in its original incarnation, the bluesy Janis Joplin-styled lament was no less powerful. Credit its increased poignancy 37 years later as Midler’s mid-song rap reflected some real losses: “When I first started singing this song, in 1978, I never imagined so many of the people I knew and loved would become ghosts to me.”
What could trim, however, are a few of the back-to-back cover songs from her current girl groups tribute album, It’s the Girls!, that dominated most of the concert’s first half. While none of the performances came up technically short — for instance, her refashioned ballad version of the 1994 TLC tune, Waterfalls, had more emotional resonance than the original R&B hit — there simply were too many songs popularized by other artists and it took far too long for Midler to deliver material for which she is best known.
However, the cover songs groundswell did allow for an overly-enamored Midler to deliver one of her sharpest quips: “Some people rescue dogs. Some rescue cats. I rescue old songs. I have rescued more oldies than Viagra.”
The Divine Intervention Tour, her first in 10 years, will need some further fine-tuning before it can approach the cohesive greatness of her earlier tours in the ’70s and early ’80s like Clams on the Half Shell Revue, Divine Madness or De Tour. For one not-so Divine setpiece, Midler partially emerged from an egg, only to tap dance her way off the stage. The point wasn’t clear. She delivered her naughty “Sophie Tucker” jokes while clad in a chicken outfit. Yokes? These were funny, even if the costumes were not.
Another routine that slowed the pace featured Midler and the Harlettes recreating the witch roles from her Hocus Pocus 1993 Disney film but it minimized a rendition of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put a Spell on You. Friday, her vocal mic failed for the introductory part of that segment but it didn’t seem a big loss.
Still, sprinkled about these dodgy moments were some inspired musical comedy bits like a smart social media sketch that managed to feature both a warm rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows and a skewering of Chris Christie, Vladimir Putin and Bruce Jenner in Divine Miss M fashion:
“Who knew that when Sally Field said, ‘You like me! You like me!’ at the Oscars she was inventing Facebook?”
For all that is right about Midler’s Divine Intervention, this consummate showman’s latest offering is a blessing. Midler might sing other people’s songs, but she’s a rarity in show business: she’s a true original.
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If you go
What: Bette Midler’s Divine Intervention Tour
Where: Hard Rock Live, 1 Seminole Way, near Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, May 9
Information: Call 800-937-0010
‘I Look Good’
‘I’ve Still Got My Health’ (From ‘Beaches’)
‘Tenderly’ (Rosemary Clooney cover)
‘If It Belongs to You’
‘Be My Baby’ (The Ronettes cover)
‘Tell Him’ (The Exciters cover)
‘He’s Sure the Boy I Love’ (The Crystals cover)
‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ (The Crystals cover)
‘Bei Mir Bist Du Schön’ (Andrews Sisters cover)
‘Waterfalls’ (TLC cover)
‘Teach Me Tonight’ (The DeCastro Sisters cover)
‘Everybody Knows’ (Leonard Cohen cover)
‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ (From ‘Beaches’)
‘I Put a Spell on You’ (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins cover, from ‘Hocus Pocus’)
‘Optimistic Voices’ (From ‘The Wizard of Oz’)
‘Bird in the Hand’ (included ‘A Visit from Soph’ Sophie Tucker jokes routine and ‘RIP Deloris DeLago: 1980-2014’ video interlude)
‘Beast of Burden’ (Rolling Stones cover)
‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’ (June Christy cover)
‘Miss Otis Regrets’ (Cole Porter)
‘The Rose’ (From ‘The Rose’)
‘From a Distance’
‘Stay With Me’ (From ‘The Rose’)
‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ (From ‘Beaches’)
‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ (Andrews Sisters cover)