I saw Barbra Streisand in concert on Tuesday, August 9, 2016, here in Chicago.
Let me repeat that for those who may not understand the gravity of that statement: I saw the legendary Barbra frikkin’ Streisand in concert this week!
Barbra Streisand…the living legend whose nearly three-decade-long hiatus from live touring between 1967 and ’94 is now a mere footnote – albeit a legendary one – in a career that spans six different decades.
Barbra Streisand…the icon among icons who two years ago became the oldest woman ever to have a #1 album – her tenth one – when Partners debuted at #1 in 2014, while “Babs” was 72. As a result of Partners’ success, she’s now the only artist in history to have a #1 album in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s and ’10s – a fact that inspired the first set of this show’s two-set performance.
Barbra Streisand…the multi-career entertainment wonder whose excellence in film, stage and song has made her one of only 17 EGOTs – you know, people who’ve won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award…or the Grand Slam of the entertainment business.
Yeah, THAT Barbra Streisand…the-one-and-only songbird whose voice is still an instrument in and of itself – that warm yet powerful vocal instrument I’ve known and respected for most of my 50 years on this earth, and one I’m sure the folks at Columbia Records – the label on which almost all of her 68 album recordings appear – have very much appreciated for even longer, thank you!
Those chart-busting albums and the musical gems they contained were the main focus of this show. Barbra narrated a tale around each of the 22 tunes she sang before launching into them, while montages of videoclips and album covers flashed across the big screens behind her and flanking the stage. As she told each song’s story, Barbra took us back in time and gave us a rare glimpse into the creative process behind the music that we’ve come to love over the decades.
And she had us captivated the whole time.
Who knew that Ms. Streisand could be so engaging with her fans? She was so much so, that when a member of her adoration society would occasionally interrupt by loudly declaring his or her love for the singer, she’d beckon them to “keep it coming,” much to the crowd’s approval. Babs apparently appreciated the love she was being shown and didn’t mind us knowing that fact.
This Streisand love-fest, in the form of a short, nine-city tour dubbed “Barbra: The Music, The Mem’ries, The Magic” began in Los Angeles last week, then traveled to San Jose and Las Vegas on Thursday and Saturday, respectively, before stopping here at the United Center. I and 20,000-plus other attendees of the part-concert/part-retrospective/part-political rally watched and listened intently as the 74-year-old singer performed a roughly two-hour, 22-song, two-encore concert that left us wanting even more than we should ever dare ask from a singer of her caliber.
To wit, after she completed the final encore and walked offstage, we still weren’t sure whether to rise from our seats and start heading for the exits…for we had already been (pleasantly) fooled twice before only to watch her return to the stage seconds later to thunderous applause.
As a testament to her durability, not only on this night but in her career in general, Babs let us in on a special anniversary she was celebrating: it was the 50th anniversary of the night she performed in Chicago at Soldier Field: August 9, 1966. At that time she was just three odd years into her professional singing and acting career and already well on her way to becoming a superstar in both song and film.
Barbra noted early in the show that, of her two main careers, she enjoyed making records more than acting because it allowed her to be more in control, a not-so-flattering self-assessment but one she unapologetically repeated throughout the show. Of course, only Babs can get away with such admissions (and have her fans actually eat it up) because, well, 1) she’s Barbra Streisand, and 2) look how far it’s gotten her.
And despite her preference for (and our collective focus on) the musical part of her career, Streisand is equally prolific in the motion picture department. She not-so-subtly reminded us of that fact as video montages of her famous movie roles – several for which she was either nominated or won an Oscar – played behind her. Images from classic films like What’s Up Doc, Funny Girl, The Way We Were, A Star Is Born, Yentl, The Prince of Tides, Hello Dolly and Nuts filled the screens while her 10-piece band/orchestra accompanied them.
Another non-subtlety displayed by Ms. Streisand this night was her political bias. In case you haven’t heard, she’s a staunch democrat and Hillary Clinton supporter – and she dislikes Donald Trump…a lot. On at least four occasions, she took a verbal jab at the Republican billionaire presidential nominee, at one point stating he “had no mind” and on another offering that he made up the 0.1% of people whose physical makeup was unlike that of other human beings.
These quips were appreciated by many in attendance, but not everyone. At one point, a would-be heckler in the nose-bleed section (where I was seated) reacted to the “Trump has no mind” comment by shouting “shut up you skank!,” resulting in a chorus of hisses and disapproving sighs from those around him. I say would-be heckler, because I doubt Streisand heard any of this commotion while she continued delivering her monologue before going into the next song: “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)” from her forthcoming album (release date: August 26).
Speaking of the songs, Babs performed them all nearly flawlessly. She opened the show with her first #1 pop single, “The Way We Were,” starting with its familiar hummed opening line. Before continuing, she offered “you weren’t expecting me to open with this one, were you?” She then reminded us that it was only appropriate given the show’s theme (a celebration of her six decades of #1 albums) and that this show was about just that: looking back. (She’d later contradict that by stating she never likes to look back, but she can contradict herself…she’s Barbra.)
She then sang “Everything” from A Star Is Born, a song on which her vocals were shaky at times, but still managed to capture its 40-year-old greatness.
Next came “Being At War With Each Other,” a tune that took on new meaning as Barbra – a noted social activist – performed in front of video images that reflected headlines (old and new) depicting racial and social injustices here in America. These images so prevalently captured the struggles of African-Americans that I was wondering if I’d see a “Black Lives Matter” banner pop up among them. I never did, but the message was delivered loud and clear nonetheless.
Yet it was hard to gauge the mostly white, mostly older crowd’s receptivity to those messages because there seemed to be only stunned silence as the images played. However, when recent events affecting the LGBT community were also included, a scattered few people in the audience applauded in support.
With everyone’s attention firmly planted on her social platforms, Streisand then performed her remake of “Everything Must Change,” a song on her 2007 Higher Ground album written by Benard Ighner and first recorded by Quincy Jones in 1974 (then George Benson and others).
Afterwards, Streisand launched into a medley of three songs that she said were her “attempt to be hip back in the ’70s”: Barry Gibb’s “Woman In Love,” Laura Nyro’s “Stoney End,” and the 1979 #1 duet with late disco queen, Donna Summer: “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).” For the latter, I had to remind myself that Streisand was a 74-year-old woman singing a 37-year-old disco anthem, all the while keeping up with the song’s frenetic pace.
She wasn’t able to hit all the original high notes of that trio of tunes, but there was still enough energy and command in her voice that you just knew she’d be able to pull it off in the studio if asked to do it again.
The hits continued with the classics “Evergreen (Love Theme from ‘A Star Is Born)” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” both #1 songs that helped make her arguably the biggest female act of the second half of the 1970s. She recalled how it nearly “knocked her over” when “Evergreen” won both an Oscar and a Grammy for Best Song from a motion picture. She also told the famous story of how “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” was the result of a clever (and heartbroken) disc jockey from Kentucky who noticed that Streisand’s and Neil Diamond’s individual recordings of the song were done in the same key, so he spliced them together and played the mock duet on his radio show, causing its popularity to grow.
She didn’t bother to finish the story about how she and Diamond went back into their respective studios to perfect the song as a duet to capitalize on this newfound demand. But it didn’t matter, by this point fans were too immersed in the song’s beauty and Streisand’s powerful delivery to care about such details.
Barbra then finished the show’s first act with “Being Alive” from The Broadway Album and “Papa Can You Hear Me” from Yentl, the latter of which drew a standing ovation as the show went into intermission.
Speaking of which, perhaps the only cheesy part of the show (besides “Who Can I Turn To,” which she performed as a virtual duet during the second set with the late Anthony Newley, à la Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” 25 years ago) was during the intermission when we heard a prerecorded message from Streisand stating that her deep-dish Chicago-style pizza had just arrived and that mentalist Lior Suchard would be keeping us entertained while she finished eating.
It was the superstar’s attempt to be just a little too hip and conversational, and it came across as inauthentic and patronizing.
Suchard (what a name by the way!) did measure up with a few mind-reading tricks with unsuspecting audience members, which admittedly had a few of us wondering how he pulled them off.
And then came that second set: another grouping of eleven songs, even more scripted but still-funny jabs at Donald Trump, and more engaging monologue and storytelling about the great music we were hearing. Just like the first set, Barbra continued to belt out classic tunes in new arrangements, with new phrasing and word-emphasis that took away the element of crowd participation (that element had apparently been reserved for the mentalist dude).
Simply put, Babs improvised just enough to keep the crowd in a listening, non-singalong mode, for hers was the only voice she wanted to be heard that night.
After all, this was a woman who, between songs, told the story of how she once phoned the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, to have him correct Syrie’s pronunciation of “Streisand” on Apple’s products.
At the United Center on August 9, she was once again exerting her control – and, once again, we didn’t mind.
And then, just like that, Babs was gone – well, after the two encore performances, that is.
The lights came on and we left our seats, mostly satisfied and wondering if we’d ever get this opportunity again in our (or her) lifetime.
If not, it’s okay. We’ve got a lifetime of Streisand musical memories and one night of live-performance bliss to tide us over for a long while.
Below is the complete setlist for Tuesday night’s performance:
- “The Way We Were”
- “Being At War With Each Other”
- “Everything Must Change”
- “Woman In Love”
- “Stoney End”
- “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”
- “Evergreen (Love Theme From ‘A Star Is Born’)”
- “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”
- “Being Alive”
- “Papa Can You Hear Me?”
- “Pure Imagination”
- “Who Can I Turn To? (When Nobody Needs Me)”
- “Losing My Mind”
- “Isn’t This better?”
- “How Lucky Can You Get?”
- “With One More Look At You”
- “Children Will Listen”
- “Don’t Rain On My Parade”
- “Happy Days Are Here Again”
- “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”
Click here to read more about Barbra, specifically how her legacy compares to that of other music “royalty.”
And click here to see my ranking of the 100 Greatest female artists of all time.