Saturday, Jan. 16, 2010 | 12:29 p.m.
When Johnny Mathis strolled onstage Friday night at Buffalo Bill's Star of the Desert Arena, that's all he did. He strolled out, in what they call a cold opening. No announcer to summon his arrival, no booming orchestral accompaniment to his unhurried gait to the mic stand.
He just walked out. Caught unaware, the crowd paused for a moment, then rose to applaud.
And when the legendary singer arrived at his spot, center stage, the spotlight beamed off the white kerchief folded in the breast pocket of his tuxedo suit. His open-necked white shirt gleamed, as did his teeth.
That would be it for flashy staging.
Johnny Mathis. A first for this kid. Tell your folks, tell your grandparents, that you've seen Johnny Mathis in concert, and they'll ask, "How's he look?" Really good for 74, slim and in good condition as he works the stage in a taught saunter. "How's he sound?" Stunningly, he sounds superb. You instinctively allow for some dip in vocal quality when the singer is a septuagenarian. But Mathis' voice is warm, soothing, crisp when it needs to be, powerful yet delicate. Listening to him croon — and that is the word that best fits his long-familiar vocal style — I envisioned someone gliding across a towering oceanic curl while balanced on a surfboard.
Mathis so captivating, even a song like "Moon River," once devastatingly satirized by Edith Bunker's screeching rendition on "All in the Family," is terrific. It gives you chills, even. And this, from a person who arrived at the hotel listening to the Police's "Regatta de Blanc," really loud on the car stereo. I hope that someone gets my, message in a bottle ....
So much to appreciate. The first line of "Chances Are" has been used as to go-to lyric for impressionists for generations, and it's jarring to hear Mathis himself sing it. But it does make you smile, as does the way he gingerly grips the mic cord as if it's a set of rosary beads. There are long segments when Mathis just closes his eyes and listens to the orchestra wash over him, as more than 3,000 fans sit silently placated.
Sometime after the wild, gear-shifting set by comic Gary Mule Deer, as Mathis re-appeared in a charcoal-colored suit and light-blue shirt, my thoughts turned to Garth Brooks' one-man show at Encore Theater a couple of months ago. It was a uniquely entertaining appearance, for sure, with Brooks in great voice and disposition. He happily sings and strums while clad in baggy jeans, clunky boots, a hooded pullover and ballcap. He continually tunes his guitar and takes requests shouted from the audience. Great fun. But in watching Mathis, I was reminded of how rewarding a formal, polished, symphonic showcase can be. This was one of the great singers of any generation backed by two dozen experienced and highly trained musicians, a presentation at once scaled back and grandiose. There were no requests shouted. You knew Mathis would cover what you wanted to hear, and it probably was first heard through hisses and snaps on a vinyl album.
After Friday afternoon's rehearsal, before the ticketed show, a member of the orchestra who had played behind Mathis for decades told me that when Mathis walked onstage, she was overcome with memories of all those shows. As she recalled all that romantic music, tears spilled down her face. And Johnny Mathis had not yet sung a note.
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.