The first time I saw Michael Feinstein perform live was in the late 90s at Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency Hotel in New York City, which closed in 2012. Never did I dream that one day I would see him years later at yet another club named after him, Feinstein’s at Hotel Carmichael in Carmel, right in my own backyard; nor did I ever imagine I would be present for his debut at the grand opening and covering it for my blog. The auspicious event took place Thursday, May 5, at the upscale cabaret where Feinstein headlined “An Evening with Michael Feinstein.”
Over the years, I have seen Feinstein perform countless times in theatres, clubs and concert halls, many times at the Palladium, so I knew what to expect, but let me say right off, that making this particular show extra special was the fact that it was Feinstein’s first live appearance since the pandemic began more than 14 months ago. Consequently, the excitement and energy in the room was off the charts for the fortunate 80 audience members, who socially distanced in the 150-seat space.
If that were not enough, before Feinstein took the stage, I realized I had forgotten to bring a pen to take notes, so I turned to the young woman seated next to me in one of the bar seats to borrow one. After introductions, I was pleased to learn she was Lily Rasmussen, the 2018 Songbook Academy Ambassador, whom I had watched the year she dazzled audiences in the week-long summer finals at the Palladium. She had traveled to Carmel with her mother Alicia from their home in Lexington, Kentucky to see her mentor. I have covered the Songbook Academy since its inception in 2009 and have followed the careers of past participants, so it was gratifying to reconnect with a gifted Songbook alumna and one of Feinstein’s proteges.
But back to Feinstein’s show. After setting a joyous, welcoming tone with “From This Moment On,” Feinstein captivated the crowd throughout his 90-minute set with songs from the Great American Songbook, all the while informing and educating the audience about each song and its performers. Lacing his banter with silly quips that have become a staple of his shows, Feinstein displayed his acumen as a consummate entertainer and showman. Contributing to the first-rate quality of Feinstein’s artistic performance was his New York-based trio, which included the incomparable Tedd Firth, who recently played and conducted for Marilyn Maye during her recent run at Feinstein’s, serving in this show as music director and pianist. Also playing was bassist Phil Palombi and drummer Mark McClean.
After expressing his delight to be back in front of a live audience and the importance of interaction between audience and entertainer, Feinstein sat down at the piano to play a clever medley of songs that parodied the standards. They included “It was vaccination, I know,” “Vaccination Rhythm,” “You Say Moderna, I say Phizer. You say J.J…”
As usual, there were so many special moments during his show that proved conclusively why Feinstein is regarded as one of the foremost interpreters of songs of the Great American Songbook. In superb voice, with his rich baritone tone, Feinstein crooned songs in his distinctive, dreamy style and demonstrated how he is such a gifted storyteller who thoroughly connects with his audience.
Some of the highlights of his show were Rodgers & Hart’s “Isn’t It Romantic?” made famous by Nat King Cole, a very slowed-tempo version of Paul Williams’s “You and Me Against the World,” a swing version of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” featuring Firth in a spectacular piano solo, and a slow, ballad rendition of The Spiral Starecase’s hit “More Today Than Yesterday.”
Something else that made the evening a once-in-a-lifetime experience was a surprise Feinstein delivered in the form of rock, metal and jazz singer Storm Large, who was to appear Friday and Saturday in her own stint at Feinstein’s and happened to be in the audience. Taking the stage, Large, who occasionally sings with Pink Martini and whom I had seen perform with that band and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra at a Pops concert, electrified the crowd with the rollicking AC/DC hit “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Reminiscent of the legendary Janis Joplin, Large was a force of nature, shaking the rafters with this rock anthem, a departure from Feinstein’s more low-key repertoire.
Bringing it back down to that level and owning it, Feinstein resumed the show with a deeply affecting mashup of Harold Rome’s “Wish You Were Here,” and Carole King’s “So Far Away,” “Hooray for Hollywood,” and Gershwin’s “’S Wonderful.” And of course, considering he was doing a show in a venue named for Hoagy Carmichael, an homage to the Hoosier icon was inevitable. Feinstein sang “How Little We Know” to honor the composer, followed by the encore, “For Once in my Life” by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden.
Prior to closing the show, Feinstein thanked some individuals in the audience, including the visionary Mayor of Carmel, Jim Brainard, who is responsible for the entertainer’s position as artistic director of the Center of the Performing Arts and the campus itself. And another great surprise, Feinstein also introduced Miss Rasmussen, which likely meant the world to the young artist, who is forging her own performance career. It was a fitting acknowledgment of someone who has been passed Feinstein’s torch to preserve and promote the Great American Songbook for her generation.
Ending the show on a hopeful note, Feinstein made comments about the healing powers of art and music and being grateful for those things we may have taken for granted as we endured the trauma the pandemic brought to our lives. As for me, to be among other human beings collectively partaking in Feinstein’s musical elixir after such a long period of isolation was an experience I will not soon forget.