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SWAGGER, NOT STYLE

The worldwide headquarters and hindquarters of freelance writer Chris Klimek

What the World Needs Now

Chris Klimek

I suppose there's no point in even trying to deny that I have become the Paper of Record's go-to guy for geriatric pop. I don't mind, really. And if you can't appreciate the composing gifts of an ace like Burt Bacharach, that's your fault!

My review of Burt's Strathmore concert appears in today's Paper of Record; here's a slightly longer version.

Lovers of avant-garde cinema will doubtless recall that when Austin Powers was released from his three-decade cryogenic freeze in 1997, the personal effects he reclaimed included only one LP: Burt Bacharach Plays His Hits.* Naturally! As he demonstrated in an elegant set at the Music Center at Strathmore Sunday night, whether it’s a 30-year hibernation you’re facing or merely a punishing DC summer heatwave, Burt knows just what’s needed to cool you down, Baby.

Sporting a sharp black suit (but no tie — ties are for squares), the newly octogenarian songwriter got a standing ovation before he’d played a note. Settling at the grand piano from which he would command an ensemble of seven players and three singers, he marshaled a single portentous chorus of his signature song, “What the World Needs Now,” before standing to lay out the agenda: A veneration of him, basically. “The music you’re going to hear was all written by the same person,” he said, beaming. And while an excess of chintzy keyboard washes kept the evening from attaining transcendent status (he’s supposed to be an ace arranger, too, right?) , it was a groovy romp through a peerless pop songbook all the same.

You don't survive five decades in show business without some humility, and indeed none of Bacharach’s frequent citations of his successes and innovations came off as vain. After Josie James belted out “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (not quite Dusty Springfield, but she’s good), Burt pointed out that the song changes time signatures every bar. “I didn’t know any better,” he chuckled. (Don't believe it.)

Medleys were the order of the day: It’s the only way he could begin to pack a representative sampling of his career into a planned 90-minute set that swelled to 110, Bacharach said, “because I feel it just so much.” An audience singalong made “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” the most fondly received of his movie themes (from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) but Burt appeared equally delighted to play loopiest of them, “Beware of the Blob” (from, er, The Blob). He mouthed the words, and occasionally rose from his piano bench when playing with particular brio, but left the singing — with a few tentative late-show exceptions — to the two women and one man seated on stools stage-left. The ladies, Donna Taylor and Josie James, were great. The dude, er, seems to have watched a lot of “American Idol."

After 45 carefree minutes, Burt got serious, introducing a pair from his Grammy winning 2005 album, At This Time, his first foray into lyric-writing. The results were surprisingly political for a man caricatured (in this very review, in fact) as such a pillar of easygoing gentility. Singer John Pagano’s performance of “Who Are These People” notably omitted the F-bomb of the recorded version sung by Elvis Costello. Burt was toning it down for the well-heeled Strathmore crowd, right? Wrong. After the tune ended, Burt quipped, “Maybe that’ll become Scott McClellan’s favorite song.” Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Burt Bacharach: provocateur.

*Actually, I'm pretty sure that album in Austin Powers is called Burt Bacharach Sings His Hits, and that we even see a shot of the cover with that title. But as near as I can tell, Burt Bacharach Sings His Hits is not a real album; while Plays His Hits is. Maybe we all just learned something about Mike Myers's sense of humor. I mean, Burt was never famed for his singing, right? And yet simply as a title, Sings is somehow funnier than Plays.