‘This is the poshest cabaret night in the world,” the warm-up pianist tells an Apollo stalls largely seated at tables laden with fine wines, and tended to by scurrying waitresses. He’s not wrong. A full orchestra take their seats and welcome on stage Mr Malibu himself, Burt Bacharach, frail foot but still dextrous at the piano and with some popular music’s most ubiquitous tunes falling from the folds his slacks.
The aesthetic is extravagant supper club, with an underlying agenda. Having rested for decades on the laurels his staggering 60s and 70s songbook, at 91 Bacharach is undergoing a late-career resurgence driven by emotional altruism. He wrote a score for the 2016 film A Boy Called Po, the true story an autistic child, in tribute to his daughter Nikki who killed herself after suffering with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome.
America’s descent into violence and despotism, meanwhile, has jolted easy listening’s Mr Nice into revolt. He introduces 2018’s Live to See Another Day, his response to the near-weekly school shootings in the US, with a desolate “nothing will change”, and his anti-Trump track With a Voice “would be more biting, edgy and angry” if he’d written it another 18 months into the presidency. These songs are too syrupy and suppliant to spark riots, but the fact that the man who wrote Walk On By felt obliged to pen them speaks volumes to America’s identity crisis. What the World Needs Now Is Love never sounded so pertinent.
The vibe is plush and luxuriant enough, though, that it’s easy to bypass the politics and wallow in the ultimate lounge masterclass. Bacharach’s songs are at the mercy the singer: when John Pagano steps from the trio backing vocalists to handle the 1998 Elvis Costello collaboration This House Is Empty Now his cabaret delivery strips it Costello’s barbs and renders it more Richard Marx-on-Broadway, but when Joss Stone slinks from the wings, barefoot in red, she wraps herself around the classics with a compassion and conviction that make her a Bacharach foil every bit the equal Dusty or Dionne.
In her hands, Burt’s finest compositions sweep by with the un-showy simplicity songs fully aware their own brilliance: Wishin’ & Hopin’, I Say a Little Prayer, the melted military march I Don’t Know What to Do With Myself and an utterly sublime I’ll Never Fall in Love Again. Their coy, giggly banter curls toes, and Burt almost blows his nice guy front when he admits he wrote Brazilian samba groove The Look Love for Ursula Andress rather than then-wife Angie Dickinson, but their musical chemistry is palpable.
Just as delicate and powerful is Josie James’s rendition Anyone Who Had a Heart, lacking Cilla’s wallop but reined in to such perfection that its explosive climax gets the evening’s first ovation. But Burt himself steals the show with his fragile Alfie and by beaming his way through a singalong Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head: magic moments pure affection for this master the stest arts.
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