Oh! Neil: Pop legend closes out the Piedmont Wind Symphony’s 24th Season
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Of all of the twinkly old charmers still serving as reminders that pop hit makers were once cut from an entirely different cloth, Neil Sedaka has never had the benefit of a late-career resuscitation like some of his contemporaries. There’s never been a gargantuan festival knocking at his door to headline like Neil Diamond. He never stuck in Vegas like Wayne Newton, or found himself on stage with Flavor Flav and the Red Hot Chili Peppers at an MTV Video Music Awards like Tony Bennett. There’s never been an Elvis Costello to come along and relight his fire like Burt Bacharach. For all his inimitable charms, an ageless mystique like that of Leonard Cohen isn’t necessarily among them.
But when Neil Sedaka walked on stage at the Lawrence Joel on Dec. 10, his 1,000-watt smile announcing his presence practically before he stepped out in front of his well-appointed audience, his positioning within the pop culture zeitgeist didn’t seem so important. As the headliner for the Piedmont Wind Symphony’s annual fundraiser, his monumental contributions to rock-and-roll history were given the VIP treatment by Robert Simon’s 24-piece ensemble.
As a primer, Sedaka’s audience — of which the almost the entire floor area was clad in tuxedos and gowns — was given rather comprehensive audio-visual assessment of his legacy on the screen behind the symphony. Among the photomontage of artists who’ve benefitted from Sedaka’s extensive songbook, there was “Laughter In the Rain” belted out by Freddie Mercury, Tom Jones (also a recipient of career CPR) singing “Puppet Man,” Diamond himself on the fitting coming-of-age tune “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen,” Patsy Cline singing the mischievous “Stupid Cupid,” and, of course, Homer Simpson’s parody of “Love Will Keep Us Together.” It made bold promises, sure, but Sedaka showed he’s still a heavyweight.
At 74, Sedaka is still a versatile performer (even if his knees didn’t allow him to properly acknowledge his multiple standing ovations). His repute as an ace pianist remains so intact that he’s able to stand out against the symphony’s full complement on his mid-career comeback rocker “That’s When the Music Takes Me,” a product of Elton John’s Rocket Records influence. When pared down to his traveling quartet, Sedaka’s sound takes on a lounge-y tone, a flattering platform for his effervescent sweetness and good humor. Then there’s Sedaka as a solo performer, which found him in poignant, if somewhat maudlin reflection on his current single “Beginning to Breathe Again,” or revealing in “The Other Side of Me,” a song that Andy Williams used as an anchor in his own comeback.
The oldest of Sedaka’s catalog is still, at its heart, the quintessence of classic bubble-gum pop. “Oh! Carol”’s defining value is as nostalgia fodder for the pre-boomers, however artfully arranged it is by the trappings of modern pop production. Then there are those like “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen,” that lend themselves to more transgressive interpretations after the erosion of years.
The holiday billing of the evening was mostly fulfilled by the symphony’s early program, which concluded with its unexpected transformation into an indigent Trans-Siberian Orchestra as the extremely modest overhead lighting array was pushed to its limits during “Pachelbel’s Canon.” It was as charming as it was cheesy, the latter only surpassed as Sedaka offered up a great Englebert Humperdinck as he leaned casually against his Steinway to sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Now, there’s someone else whose career could use a kick start. !