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Gaga, Bennett concert stoked by chemistry

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

When she burst onto the pop scene seven years ago, Lady Gaga was anything but simple. She was loud, brash, in-your-face, challenging — she made you pay attention, and she made you form an opinion of her. There was no such thing as passive when it came to Lady Gaga.

Monday night at Meadow Brook Music Festival, Gaga left all of her antics behind during her toned-down pairing with Tony Bennett, part of the duo’s Cheek to Cheek Tour. Outside of a few skin-baring gowns, Gaga was all restraint and elegance during the 95-minute show, where the two tag teamed a few dozen jazz standards and put the focus on the music, not the flash.

It was an easygoing night at the Rochester Hills amphitheater, with a polite, respectful crowd — more of a Tony Bennett audience in age and demographic than a Gaga one — on hand for pop’s May-December team. On paper, they’re a wacky pair: Bennett, a few days shy of 89, is three times the age of Gaga, the most boundary-pushing pop star of the modern era.

But dig a little deeper and it makes sense: Gaga has a monstrous voice that is often overshadowed by her wild stunts, and after she hit a creative dead end with her disappointing third album “Artpop,” teaming up with Bennett was a sharp way to hit pause and refocus herself and her priorities. (The pair’s joint album “Cheek to Cheek,” released last September, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart.)

Monday’s 30-song outing was stoked by the chemistry and the playful patter between the two performers, with Gaga coming off humbled to be in Bennett’s presence.

“Do you know what it’s like to have to follow him like 10 times in one night?” she asked at one point, later crediting him with teaching a master class in singing during their time together. “I feel like I get better all the time because I’m around you,” she said.

There were moments when she locked in on Bennett and seemed beside herself to be with him on stage.

Gaga was never far from an outfit change, and she wore a series of glittery gowns and one pasties-and-fishnets number that seemed designed to make Bennett’s eyeballs pop out of his head. They wrapped their arms around each other and slow danced, making for an odd couple. (In an alternate time line, the tour would have been Bennett and Amy Winehouse, given the late singer’s idolatry of Bennett.)

Bennett was on stage alone for more than a third of the show, which turned out to be a few songs too many. (Nobody puts Gaga in a corner.) Bennett has hardly slipped over the years; his voice is still warm and robust, though his phrasing was at times rushed, especially during his quickie take on “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.”

Gaga, tasked with both calming down her Little Monsters and holding her own with a legend, was even more impressive. (A front row fan mugging for her attention all night finally got it, with Gaga kneeling down and telling him frankly, “I’m gonna let you take one selfie, and then you’re going to listen to the music.”)

Typically showy, Gaga showed remarkable restraint during “Nature Boy,” servicing the song rather than letting her big, Broadway-style instincts overpower the moment. She played up to the older audience, explaining “why Tony Bennett is singing jazz with the girl who wore the meat dress,” and earned the evening’s showstopper moment when she turned in a stunning version of “La Vie En Rose” in French and English. (Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” got the full-on standing ovation that Gaga deserved.)

The setlist stuck to standards, though it would have been fun to hear at least one Gaga song given a jazzy makeover. And it was a missed opportunity not to have Bennett chime in on “Bad Romance” in some manner or another.

But what the show lacked in adventurousness it made up for in charm. The simple lighting cues and sparse production matched the tone of the evening, where an unlikely couple showed what can happen when two worlds collide.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama