The legendary Burt Bacharach has died. Here, we remember an emotional night watching one of his final shows.
We knew this was coming, sooner rather than later, but the death of Burt Bacharach at the grand old age of 94 still fills me with a sadness that is hard to explain. Bacharach’s music is the sound that I think of when I think of the 1960s – not the Beatles, not any other rock ‘n’ roll acts… it’s Bacharach’s effortlessly easy listening songs co-written with Hal David as lyricist that feel like the sound of the decade, the sound that floated across movie scores and the pop charts alike, performed by a variety of artists but always sounding as though it came from the same source – because, of course, it did. Bacharach’s music was never cool, but that just meant that it could never become uncool, existing as it did outside youth culture and pop trends. It’s music that epitomes joy and sorrow, sadness and hope all at once, the songs playing – sometimes rather caustically, as in Do You Know the Way to San Jose? – with our hopes and dreams, reminding us that ambition can sometimes blind us to what we really need and telling us to take pleasure in the little things. That all this seemed so effortless is amazing.
Way back – gosh, almost a decade ago – we got to see Bacharach playing live in Nottingham. Not even his final tour as it turned out although it felt even then as though time was running out for him and that there would be few opportunities to experience this again. My original review of that show still feels like the best tribute I can make to the man and so here it is.
On a stiflingly hot and sweaty day, what better to chill you out than an evening of Burt Bacharach? A casual conversation a couple of weeks ago had quickly gone from the revelation that Bacharach was touring the UK to “we have to go”, and so tickets were secured for the shamefully not-quite-sold-out Nottingham gig at the Royal Concert Hall – which, as we discovered while trying to work out where the entrance was, is not quite the same thing as The Theatre Royal, though both share a building.
Reaching the top tier of the Hall – where we were sat – just in time to hear the opening piano tickles and plaintive warbles of the support act, we decided that a quick drink was in order. Note that if you are upstairs at the Royal Concert Hall and want a drink, you’ll get plenty of exercise going up and down the stairs, especially if a member of staff misdirects you to a ‘shortcut’ that leads only to fire doors. So we were still mid-drink (dare I note that the venue has a typically dismal selection of beers? Come on, theatres, it’s not that hard to get a decent mix beyond Carlsberg and Greens IPA Smooth) when the support finished and we found our seats, which were conveniently – as long as you don’t look over the edge and suffer from vertigo – at the front of the upper section, providing an unexpectedly decent view of things. You might not want to be here for a rock gig, but for Burt Bacharach, they were perfect.
And ‘perfect’ is a good description of the show that followed. I had little idea what to expect, to be honest, but this was truly amazing, an emotional journey unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since. The band come out first, followed by the three singers who will perform most of the songs. Then the man himself appears, to a rapturous welcome. He walks slowly to the front of the stage and then to his piano – very slowly. It suddenly strikes you that this is an 87-year-old. He seems very frail and you can’t help but worry for him, and after a sterling performance of What the World Needs Now when he returns to the front to introduce the next selection of songs in a voice that is little more than a whisper, it feels even more heartbreaking. This is, surely, the final tour for Bacharach. That he is still touring at all at his age is remarkable. And yet as the show progresses, he seems to shed the years – he stands up at the piano, his voice becomes stronger, and he seems more dynamic. And as Mrs R says, he’s still effortlessly cool.
Bacharach’s band is flawless, and his three singers – Josie James, John Pagano and Donna Taylor – do a fine job of interpreting the songs. These don’t feel like compromised covers, but are mostly as good as the original recordings… sometimes, dare I say it, better.
Bacharach has written so many songs that he can – indeed, has to – perform medleys of his biggest hits, and he opens proceedings with a selection of tracks written with Hal David and performed by (among many others) Dionne Warwick. As the performance continues, I find myself feeling oddly emotional. I’m actually crying. This has never happened at a live show before, but it won’t be the last time it happens tonight. The effect of seeing the great man performing his endless collection of beautiful, perfect songs hits you that way. Looking around, I could see that I wasn’t alone in this reaction. I’ve seen adulation from audiences before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so much unabashed, genuine love.
And it feels like a two-way thing. Bacharach might tell every audience that they are a wonderful crowd, but you feel that he means it. And his banter is less introduction and more storytelling – tales of his life, often self-deprecating, that make this more than just a concert. It’s genuinely ‘an evening with Burt Bacharach’, and that’s what makes it all the more emotional. You suspect he knows this is the final ride. It’s why he is trying to cram so much in. He plays for over two hours – take that, lazy rock bands – and is determined to cover the whole breadth of his career – and so we even get to hear the theme tune from The Blob, and whoever expected to see Burt Bacharach play that live (his embarrassment at the song is one of the sweeter moments of the night).
And there are other unexpected tracks scattered in – hearing lesser-known songs like Waiting for Charlie (To Come Home) was a real treat. But it’s the hits – so many hits – that really get you. A stripped-down, emotive version of Close to You was emotionally devastating, but just when you think you’ve been put through the emotional ringer, Bacharach himself sings a few numbers. Now, Burt has never had the strongest of voices (to say the least), and yet here, at this moment, it is heartbreakingly honest – a fragile, tender voice that immediately strips back the band (who are mostly silent during these songs) and the venue and makes everything feel incredibly intimate and touching. His performances of Alfie, Wives and Lovers, A House is Not a Home, Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head and others are shattering.
We even get four encores, including an audience singalong of Raindrops…, which might have seemed cheesy in other circumstances, but is a fitting way to end here. A vocal outpouring of affection and a connection between performer and audience that made perfect sense.
Heading out to see Burt Bacharach, I expected a thoroughly entertaining evening, and I certainly got one. I didn’t, however, expect to be so emotionally affected, so touched and so completely blown away. It was the most romantic, poignant evening of my life. Everything after this will seem rather lacking, I fear.
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