by R. Eric Thomas | June 17, 2015 1:16 pm
“I’m like vodka,” Bette Midler quipped to the nearly sold-out crowd at the Wells Fargo Center last night. “I’m colorless, odorless and tasteless!” Everyone roared.
Actually, the 69-year-old diva struggled a bit with the line. Calm down; I’m not reading her. Initially she flubbed the joke, abandoned it, then remembered it and finally charged through with gusto. That’s not a read. If you’ve ever seen me on stage, you’ve been treated to the slow-motion train-wreck that is me instantaneously forgetting 90 percent of everything I’ve ever known. I only mention it because that moment—one that the consummate performer breezed over with aplomb—encapsulates so much of the Divine Miss M’s appeal: underneath her crackerjack timing, her arsenal of hoary jokes, and her distinctively dazzling voice, she’s always straddled the two sides of vulnerability as a performer, evincing resilience and fragility at once. Now, after over 45 years of carrying on, she’s not afraid to acknowledge the passage of time, be it in a ribald set about aging or by momentarily forgetting a line.
Midler was in town on the 19th stop of her “Divine Intervention Tour,” her first time playing Philadelphia since 2004’s “Kiss My Brass.” The crowd was living for it. Casting her eyes over the Wells Fargo Center, Midler surveyed the audience to find out who had driven to the show. Unlike last week’s Taylor Swift concert, which packed SEPTA with giddy teenagers and their game parents (or vice versa), most of Midler’s middle-aged fans brought their cars in. “That’s surprising,” she cried. “Good to know that so many of my fans can still drive at night!”
Now that’s a read, child.
The Divine Miss M, the erstwhile Bathhouse Betty, is the original drag queen. “Don’t I look fabulous,” she crowed. “I’m a triumph of science and fiction!” She is equal parts vaudevillian, diva and clown and all three were put on display at her dynamite two-hour show on Tuesday night.
Powering through 16 songs and three encores, Midler eschewed chronological order or narrative in favor of 3 or 4 song sets punctuated by deliciously wicked stage banter. A master comedian who is equal parts Borscht Belt quipster and Hollywood legend, Midler fired off a rapid succession of sex jokes, double entendres, classic set-ups and reads as easy as breathing and then segued seamlessly into “I’ve Still Got My Health” and her first big hit, “Do You Want to Dance?”
Perhaps out of deference to hometown heroine Patti Labelle, who was sitting in the fifth row, the Divine Miss M did not perform “Miss Otis Regrets” as she has on previous tour stops. Instead, for the soul segment of her show, she killed it with rousing renditions of “Tell Him” and “Teach Me Tonight.” She ended the set with a stunningly vulnerable cover of TLC’s 1995 hit “Waterfalls” that breathed new life into the 20-year-old ballad’s urgent message about the AIDS crisis. It was one of the highlights of a superb evening.
Her voice is still everything. The arrangements have changed, sure. Her voice has aged a bit. The high notes may not be as high; the runs may be closer to jogs. But the feelings have stayed the same. And she can still sell a song.
While all the hallmarks of a Divine Miss M show are present, this was a far more introspective concert than her previous tours. After performing “Beast of Burden,” she mused “I recorded that during my short-lived rock-and-roll phase. It didn’t love me. Or I didn’t love it. I don’t know.” She explained that her leather-jacket look of the period was only appreciated in Germany. “I married a German man a few years later. Now I dress up as Poland and he invades me every night.” Midler giggled through the crowd’s reaction to the ancient joke and ran her fingers through her hair. “That one just came back to me. Isn’t it funny how things go away and then come back?”
This was a recurring theme throughout the night, at times disappearing behind delightful antics—like her Hocus Pocus number, complete with Winifred Sanderson costume, and a fantastically daffy Sophie Tucker vaudeville that brought her out in a black sequined bodice adorned with red feathers. Farmhouse fierce, for sure.
But the concert ultimately settled comfortably back into a place of rumination.
Ninety minutes in, she emerged in floor length ruby sequins and I lost my whole entire mind. She was wearing the garment version of Dorothy’s slippers. A queen in the front row was so taken by the dramatic transformation that he had to be physically restrained by security. Gays loves shiny shit. What can I say?
On a bare stage, she sailed through “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” “The Rose” (a personal favorite that still sounds incredible), “From A Distance” and closed with a phenomenal “Stay With Me.”
She paused at the bridge of the song and addressed the audience once more. “I used to think this was a song about breakups … I don’t think that anymore.” She continued, with tears brimming in her eyes. “As the years go by I’m stunned at how many people I knew and loved who have become ghosts to me.”
No one else can veer from camp to melodrama to genuine vulnerability with such ease. Bette, an early and longtime supporter of AIDS research has straddled the line between humor and melancholy. She is joy and loss in the same reedy note. Dick jokes and eulogies. Nobody else is able to speak to both at once. And that’s the story of our community. Indeed, that’s the story of every life, gay or otherwise.
She is an icon because she is here for the good times and the bad, the loss, the change, the forgotten lines, the replaced parts. In her red dress against a night sky background she was a vibrant sliver of vitality. Times change. We all age. We lose things. We gain things. The Divine is not going anywhere.
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