It’s no stretch to say that Burt Bacharach has stood as one of the most significant figures in popular music for the last 60 years.
Since the late 1950s, the prolific songwriter has penned 73 US Top 40 hits, including iconic Number Ones like “What’s New Pussycat” and “Always Something There to Remind Me.” He carted home numerous awards (including Grammys and Songwriting Oscars) over the years, and became a ubiquitous visitor to millions of Americans on TV, enjoying pop culture omnipresence on the order of Lady Gaga throughout the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.
More importantly, Bacharach’s composition style--infectious melody wedded with jazz and bossanova tinges, complex arrangements, and surprising chord combinations--continues to wield a potent influence on modern musicians. Any time artists from Elton John to Portishead venture outside the rock-instrumentation box with strings and horns, you’re hearing the seeds of Bacharach’s music bearing fruit. Elvis Costello collaborated with the composer on the 1998 album Painted from Memory, and Bacharach’s most recent release of all-original material (2005’s At This Time) included contributions from Costello, Rufus Wainwright, and Dr. Dre(!).
WIth a resume like that, it was a no-brainer that Bacharach’s concert at the Snoqualmie Casino last week would be a well-curated tour through the American Songbook. But could a show by an 85-year-old easy-listening pop songwriter be anything more than a quaint stroll down Memory Lane? The answer, as wrought by Bacharach and his ace accompanists last Thursday, was an exhilarating yes.
Not surprisingly, much of the set’s oomph came from the songs themselves, constructions so durable they’ve weathered decades of cultural change without losing their luster. You didn’t need to look any further than the evening’s opening tune, an impeccably-delivered rendition of Bacharach’s 1965 Jackie DeShannon hit, “What the World Needs Now (is Love),” for evidence. With its unusual waltz-time tempo and subtly catchy chorus, it provided a textbook display of Bacharach’s uncanny skill at combining global accessibility with unexpected twists.
Two-dozen-plus examples of that singular style followed over the course of the nearly two-hour long show. Bacharach’s incalculably deep catalog practically demanded a heavy reliance on medleys, but his imaginative arrangements kept those song samplers from sliding into rote highlight reels. There was humor to go with the hits, too: One of the medleys included a playful rendition of one of his first recorded songs, the theme to the 1958 B-horror classic, The Blob.
The band, many of whom have played with Bacharach for years, delivered the old chestnuts with sharpness and grace: The smoky balladry of “The Look of Love,” the expectant romantic build of “Close to You,” and the libidinous gallop of “What’s New Pussycat” saw impressive fruition thanks to Bacharach’s stable of longtime players. Vocalists Josie James, Donna Taylor, and John Pagano nimbly sang songs made famous by singers from Elvis Presley to Dusty Springfield without sounding like carbon copies, and two skilled horn players and an additional keyboardist augmented Bacharach’s sweeping arrangements with impressive fidelity. The band’s sound even re-invigorated a couple of the old standbys: Anyone weaned on the soggy Ronnie Milsap cover of “Any Day Now,” for one, heard that tune reclaimed as a cooking Memphis groove by Bacharach’s 2014-edition ensemble.
Clad smartly in a suit and sneakers, Bacharach held amiable court at the center of the performance, ceding most of the vocal duties to his bandmates while he switched between a grand piano and a Yamaha keyboard. His between-song banter alone merited the price of admission, as he told self-deprecating and amusing anecdotes about everything from working in New York's legendary Brill Building to conducting and arranging for screen legend Marlene Dietrich.
The show’s most magical moment came mid-set. Accompanying himself solo on piano, Bacharach crooned the Hal David-penned lyrics of “Alfie” in a sandy, weathered voice that seemed to mirror every richly-lived second of his 85 years on Earth. Like a lot of Bacharach’s winning compositions with David, “Alfie” overflows with imprints of memory and reflection, and this sparse rendition provided a moment of disarming vulnerability--the most direct and powerful communication between a songwriter and a live audience that I’ve experienced in I don’t know how long.