Disclosure time: my wife is a big Barry Manilow fan. I didn’t know this about her before we were married. She knows that hers is a love that dare not speak its name since, despite the giga-bazillion records he has sold, the Manilow brand is anathema to many.
One time we went to a work-related Christmas party that featured a white elephant gift exchange; one of those things where, as a gag, people give away stuff in their possession that they don’t want. In the luck of the draw, my wife received a Barry Manilow double-album and was thrilled, to the dismay of my co-workers. My wife no longer attends work-related Christmas parties with me.
I also used to have one of those CD-buying club memberships; you know the ones that just about require surgery to get removed from you. Despite what my membership in the club says about my judgment, I wouldn’t let my wife order a Barry Manilow CD from the club. “The government keeps track of those records and, as the membership is in my name, I don’t want that in my permanent record.”
Nevertheless, my wife has fond memories of the two Barry Manilow concerts she’s attended.
Actually, make that three.
Thursday one of my co-workers who does a lot of work with the United Way received four comp tickets from the organization to Friday night’s Manilow concert. He either couldn’t or wouldn’t use them himself so he sent an email around the office that these were available. Now, I could have ignored it and my wife would have been none the wiser, but I knew how much she liked Barry Manilow and what it meant to her, and could mean to me, if I could get those tickets. I called. Amazingly, they were still available. I called my wife. When she answered the phone I crooned, “I write the songs that make the whole world sing…”
“What?” she said.
“Well, do you know who writes the songs?”
“Do you know he’s in concert tomorrow night at the Xcel?”
“Do you know who has tickets to the concert?”
So, Friday night the four of us were in the car an hour ahead of showtime, looking for parking near the Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul. The River Centre ramp was already full, and a guy trying to wave us into his surface lot was charging $15. Despite the fact that the tickets were comped, we didn’t want to spend that much money for parking. We pulled up to the Science Museum parking lot. The sign there showed prices for different time increments. The four-hour rate looked acceptable. There was also a flat rate for 12-24 hours that didn’t look too bad. I told my wife that, no matter what, I was drawing the line at 10 hours.
We made the short walk to the Xcel, entering through a side door that deposited us in the middle of the Sportsman’s Show in one of the concourses. Fishing boats and ATVs lined the concourse. My brother-in-law loves ATVs, and there were a couple of beauties right there. It looked as if he and I could spend the evening there, sitting on various ATVs and making “vrroom-vrroom” noises, but we fell in line with our women, who were already pressing on toward the main part of the building.
We had good seats, in the lower bowl of the arena, to the left of the stage, maybe about 120 feet from front of it. “Music and passion” was written out in lights above and behind the stage. The crowd was already buzzing with anticipation as the sound system played some Janet Jackson “Miss You Much”. A thick haze was already hanging over the people in the floor seating. As a veteran of concerts by Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, The Tubes, The Eagles and dozens of lesser lights, plus three Springsteen shows, I was bemused to see that some things hadn’t changed. Then I realized the haze was caused by the ice rink underneath the flooring, not by doobies. St. Paul does have a smoking ban, you know.
The audience seemed predominantly female, and over-40, though some were much older and others were surprisingly young. There were a couple of beefy young guys in the row in front of us, wearing ballcaps and Cabela’s jackets. They looked as if they came expecting a hockey game. I imagined the earlier conversation between them:
“Dude. I’ve got tickets for the X on Friday night, lower level.”
Then they would have shown up in front of the arena and read the signs.
The opening act came out, a very proficient and professional jazz/funk ensemble with an impossibly thin and hyper-kinetic front man. The music was tight, but the presentation was a bit too Vegas-y. And the front guy kept saying how great it was to be back in “Minneapolis.” Oh well, they were on and off in 30 minutes, exactly. During the changeover I wandered out into the concourse. Ushers were passing out green plastic glow-sticks that were already lighting up around the arena. I perused the menu at the concession stand. Exorbitant, as expected. Wait, coffee was “only” $2 per 16 oz. cup. I bought two coffees for my bride and I, doctoring hers with a couple of creams. I thought about all the various beverages I have consumed at other concerts and realized I had never ever bought coffee at one of these things before.
I got back inside just before the lights went out. When they did the green glow sticks suddenly filled the place like a swarm of orgiastic fireflies that, without a fixed frame of reference to look at, gave me a bit of vertigo. Then the stage flashed and the on-stage bleachers that held the orchestra slid apart and the man himself was there, singing “the miracle was you!” as the place went wild.
And you want to know something? It was a great show. The guy is 64-years -old (you can look it up) and you can tell that about 50 of those years have been spent in front of audiences. He’s not flashy, just incredibly smooth. If he can’t quite get or hold all the notes all the time it doesn’t matter because his voice was never his strong suit, compared to his ability to craft catchy musical hooks, schmaltzy (but not saccharine) lyrics and a winning personality. And what a personality. I’ve seen a lot of performers, and heard a lot of them tell the audience how great it was to be there and how wonderful they all were, but no one has ever seemed to mean it like Barry Manilow did last night. There’s a comfort and ease in a long-term relationship, and Manilow seemed truly pleased to be there, almost as much as the fans going crazy in the front rows. He didn’t preen and posture, nor did he do the whole false modesty “stop, stop, you’re too kind” bit that can be just as off-putting. He enjoyed and appreciated the adulation, but returned it with warmth and just enough self-deprecation to feel genuine.
When he sang “Moonlight Serenade” he came to the front of the elevated stage where a railed balcony had come up from the floor of the arena. He stepped out on the platform and it slowly lowered, driving the fans in the front 30 rows mad with anticipation. When he opened the gate in the balcony railing it was almost as if he had cast a piece of clothing off into the crowd. And when he stepped out, extended his hand to a handsome blonde woman and asked “Will you dance with me” about 500 women standing around them nearly swooned, looking as if they were doing “the wave.” The two of them rode the platform back up to the stage where they had a nice slow dance, the woman somehow keeping her composure while also giving off a vibe that suggested she wouldn’t wash for a week.
The show was a what his fans wanted, a wealth of hits, some jazzy choreography and costumes by his backup singers, some funny by-play and physical humor with the members of his band and plenty of appreciation going both directions. Everyone knows — particularly Manilow and his fans — the general derision directed at his music and career. I pondered what it was about him that seemed to generate such strong feelings, pro and con. It could be a backlash for his huge success and the sheer ubiquity of his music – from commercial jingles to chart-topping singles and multi-platinum albums. Perhaps the volume of work bugs people, though each song by itself is tightly-crafted, catchy, usually innocuous and sometimes evocative; it’s certainly not as vapid as some of what is celebrated out there today. I suppose you could level the charge of being “too commercial” but lots of bands and performers can be syruped with that epithet but they’re generally dismissed but not hated. Certainly, however, if “too commercial” is the problem you’d have to say that no one has done it as successfully as he has and maybe that’s why he has drawn legions of fans and legions of haters. Perhaps that is the curse that comes with his success.
In the arena this night, however, any haters are in the distinct minority and too wise to make a protest. In here just about everyone is in on the joke. Manilow and his followers know what is said about them outside these walls but in here it just doesn’t matter and both are unguarded in their feelings. Some have described Manilow as a walking jukebox; my opinion is that he’s more of a walking elevator. All the same, I had to admire the show and the presentation. I even found myself charmed at times. There’s certainly enough opportunities and topics in the blogosphere about which to rant and rail at evils real and perceived. I really can’t criticize something bringing so many people (including Manilow) so much joy.
Heck, I might even download some of his songs for my wife. Just don’t tell the government.