One’s tolerance for Barry Manilow can be determined with a single, multi-syllabic word — Copacabana.
Say it out loud. Did you react with a shudder or by playfully swinging your hips?
Thursday’s rapturous crowd at the MCI Center were of the hip-swinging order, a demographic melange hanging on every optimistic note Mr. Manilow flung their way.
“We know each other, don’t we?” he teased as he took the stage, one of many lines that felt road-tested but true all the same.
Hang in the game long enough, as Mr. Manilow has, and you can evolve from showman to punch line back to showman again.
And make no mistake, that’s where we find Mr. Manilow once more — keenly aware of how silly he looks at times but not giving a whit.
Billboard Boxscore reported his last tour, which wrapped in 2002, grossed more than $23 million.
Who wouldn’t brim with brio after ringing up that much coin?
The Grammy-winning singer-pianist-composer took the stage in an electric blue suit; his spiked hair making him look like Rod Stewart’s non-threatening brother. Mr. Manilow remains a hermetically-sealed sexual presence, a man who inspires goose bumps in his fans without raising any primal heat.
Mr. Manilow, taking his One Night Live! One Last Time! tour across the country, could have easily walked through his songbook and garnered nearly the same approval.
This crowd came willing to worship.
Instead, he poured his heart into every number with a voice which bore a slight but welcome rasp.
He knows the dramatic clincher in each song and never failed to grab it.
“This country needs me… you need to be uplifted,” said Mr. Manilow, sounding somewhat patriotic but stopping far short of any Vote for Change-isms.
The show’s clean, uncomplicated arrangements let the emotions speak for him.
Supported by a healthy band of background singers and a full- throttled orchestra, Mr. Manilow tore through his greatest hits such as “Could It Be Magic,” “I Write the Songs” and, of course, a camped up — if that’s even possible — “Copacabana.”
In an interview prior to the show, Mr. Manilow said his career isn’t guided by what’s currently in vogue.
“Left to my own devices, I always make the wrong choices on what’s trendy,” he says. “I’m good at sticking to my guts. Oddly enough, I’m hipper than most commercial people. I see what’s coming up within two years [instead of right now]. That’s not good for a pop artist.”
It’s plenty fine for a singer/songwriter/arranger with a gimlet eye on longevity. It helps that he doesn’t spin his appeal.
“I’ve never been ironic or cynical,” he says. “I think there’s something to that… I can’t be phoney. I think audiences get that.”
During Thursday’s concert, he tackled the maudlin “Mandy” by playing an antiquated clip of him performing the song for television, his feathery hair framing those heavy-lidded eyes. Musically, the 2004 model didn’t suffer by comparison, even if the decades have matured his visage.
“This is what Clay Aiken is going to look like in 30 years,” he joked.
Mr. Manilow can still power his way through a ballad. “Somewhere Down the Road” hushed the crowd into near silence, bringing at least one grown man to tears.
On the other hand, Mr. Manilow and crew should have ditched their a cappella “William Tell Overture” tribute.
Aside from that, the night proved refreshingly short of blunders — that is, unless you’re counting the time when Mr. Manilow’s piano lost a key mid-song.
The performer, as expected, didn’t miss a beat.
Now 61, he’s right in tune with the over-50 set of superstars (a la Phil Collins and Cher) in insisting that his current tour will be his last.
“There’s always another album down the pike… but leaving home for months at a time, with semi trucks and hotel rooms, there’s too much of that for me,” Mr. Manilow says.
He may be surrendering his grip on the road but it isn’t an easy call.
“I’m gonna miss you,” an emotional Mr. Manilow said before bidding his audience adieu.
We’re not used to men crying at the MCI Center, unless they’re Wizards season ticket holders. But on this night, nobody blinked an eye.