Linda Ronstadt sings only what’s old
by Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass., July 5, 2002) – By the end of her concert at Tanglewood on Thursday night, Linda Ronstadt broke two promises. Early in her show, devoted almost in its entirety to arrangements of pop standards arranged by Nelson Riddle, she told the audience she would not be singing anything in Spanish or any of the rock ‘n’ roll songs that first brought her fame in the 1970s.

But Ronstadt skirted the issue during her encores, offering renditions of Jimmy Webb’s “Adios,” which admittedly only has one word – the title -- in Spanish, and “Desperado,” a torchy country ballad by her former backup band, the Eagles, that admittedly fit right in with the old-fashioned pop ballads she had been singing all evening.

Otherwise, for better or worse, Ronstadt stuck to her announced program, which to the exclusion of her rock, country, folk and Latin repertoires, was heavy on the popular romantic ballads for which Riddle wrote string arrangements for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole and Ella Fitzgerald.

Ronstadt brought to these songs her rich, powerful vocals, informed as much by her classical training as by her background belting out r&b and rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Her voice was huge (and so loud I had to use earplugs to protect my hearing), and she used its sheer power and her amazing breath control as interpretive tools for dramatic endings to “What’s New” and the Rodgers and Hart classic, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” which she dedicated to the late Rosemary Clooney.

The most interesting numbers were those that challenged Ronstadt to do more than belt out straightforward renditions of well-crafted pop standards, to which she brought little of the personality of the great singers like Sinatra and Garland. But when she tackled the dark, inverted melody of Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” and the Gershwins’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” her bluesier instincts were channeled, notes were slurred, and her phrasing became more personal.

The American Festival Orchestra did a lovely job replicating Riddle’s subtle arrangements, which for the most part stayed out of the singer’s way. The Ellingtonian beauty of the playing on Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” however – with its impressionistic colors and textures and complex rhythmic and harmonic changes – overshadowed Ronstadt’s somewhat plain delivery of the anguished ballad.

There was almost by definition not a lot of variety in Ronstadt’s program, devoted as it was to Riddle’s ballads. While her rock and country material probably would have been out of place, it’s a shame she couldn’t have worked in some of her mariachi music, or something from her more playful Gilbert and Sullivan and Broadway show tune repertoires. Ronstadt is an incredibly versatile singer, if somewhat of an introverted performer, and thus her material has to do most of the work for her.

It’s also too bad that Ronstadt felt the need to disrespect songwriters from the second-half of the 20th century. Randy Newman, J.D. Souther, Buddy Holly, Doc Pomus, John Hiatt, Roy Orbison, Karla Bonoff, Elvis Costello and Warren Zevon all provided songs for her that are the equal of the great works by the Sammy Cahns and the Richard Rodgerses of yesteryear.

Vocalist Steve Tyrell warmed up the crowd with a 35-minute set of standards including “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “World on a String.” His voice is an interesting combination of a Louis Armstrong-like growl and a smoother, Tony Bennett-like bel canto, which worked particularly well on more bluesy numbers like Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind.” Tyrell sabotaged his set, however, with too much smarmy show-biz talk.

Tyrell joined Ronstadt for her first encore, a largely muffed attempt at a duet on Carmichael’s “Stardust” for which Ronstadt apparently had not prepared.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 6, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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