I don’t go to many concerts. The last one I went to was with Alan Jackson, the country singer from Georgia who sings ballads about watering holes and family. But that was at the end of a painful relationship. I still don’t go anywhere near watering holes. Before that I would go to see Christmas choirs, chamber ensembles, and an occasional jazz trio. But nothing that sold out in the first eleven minutes.
The concert I went to this week didn’t sell out in the first eleven minutes, either. In fact, it didn’t sell out at all. There were empty seats around us. I’d put the total number of concert-goers at about a thousand. Still, as my daughter can attest, it was a great event. What’s even more surprising is that it featured a guy my mother’s age. Throughout, I tried to imagine my mother doing his moves. Really, she should have been with us, since I’m sure she was a fan of Engelbert Humperdinck back in the day (see The Prep Boys).
Throughout the sixties, Humperdinck and Tom Jones represented that other British invasion. They followed earlier vocalists like Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra but added what was then called “blue-eyed soul.” Today, you can also hear the influence of country music in Humperdinck’s songs, the arrangement of former hits like “Release Me” (1949), and even in the slight twang he seems to have developed over the years, which sounds strange for a singer from Leicester, England.
But what made this concert memorable wasn’t his smooth-throated crooning but his story-telling, rapport with the audience, and self-deprecating humor. He entertained us rather than overpowered us with his vocals, which weren’t as commanding as they had once been. The 2020s singer differed from his 1960s counterpart the way older and younger boxers might differ, the former making up for the loss of muscle and agility with footwork and technique. Ironically, at one point in the show he came out wearing a warmup robe and throwing what looked like jabs.
The audience was with him, singing along and reminiscing, a sea of cellphones recording the moment for the digital universe and to prove that we had survived along with him, having sputtered, skidded, and tripped our way through the decades. And then I noticed something interesting. Most people didn’t appear to be in their eighties or even seventies but younger. Sure, there were people at least as old as him, but many looked considerably younger. I assumed that meant they had grown up with Engelbert Humperdinck music in the house, not necessarily because they listened to it but because their parents and older relatives did. And yet, they came. Why?
I’ve asked myself a similar question, not about going to the concert, which is answered easily enough–my daughter invited me (we share the same eclectic tastes)–but why I jumped at the chance. Yes, I like his music. Yes, I like him. Yes, I knew it would be a bit strange, but no stranger than going to The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight. It turned out to be less so, since we got out of the civic auditorium at 9:40 pm for a show that began promptly at 8:00 pm. Happily, with age comes promptness.
So, what was the draw? Originally, it was curiosity. I wanted to see what he looked like. But then I thought it would be a chance to reminisce, to meet an old “friend,” to travel back in time, to be young again. It didn’t take long for me to realize that, despite the entertainment value of the show and Humperdinck’s charm, I felt old. Watching him on stage forced me to admit just how many years have passed. At one point, he even said so in song, changing the lyrics of “The Last Waltz” (1967).
I figured out the real draw days later. Engelbert Humperdinck had taken on the 800-pound gorilla in the room or, if you prefer Yates, “the sorrows of your changing face” (see “When You Are Old”). He helped us face our mortality seat by seat, row by row. You could almost see the acceptance of it moving in waves from the stage to the back of the auditorium. He showed us not to be afraid of death. I think at some level that’s what I had been hoping for. That’s what he delivered.
And he still has incredible hair.
Image credits: Engelbert Humperdinck Closing Night at The Orleans Las Vegas NV 6-14-2009, by Wayne Dilger, licensed under CC BY 2.0; Engelbert Humperdinck in 2008, by Rockinred1969, licensed under CC BY 3.0.
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