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Sore throat doesn't deter Burt Bacharach at Fox Performing Arts Center

burt-11-0214.jpgBy Cathy Maestri

Four standing ovations Burt Bacharach got Saturday — this on a night the headliner couldn’t croak his way through a song and audibly sucked on a cough drop.

The audience at the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside didn’t mind a whit. No one was there to hear the composer sing (three vocalists carried the bulk of the songs, anyway) as much as spend the evening with Bacharach and his music. A combination of some the century’s greatest pop melodies and loads of old-fashioned charm will earn a lot of forgiveness.

The 82-year-old Bacharach looked stooped and stiff as he walked onstage in a black suit and lipstick-red pocket square; by the end of the evening, there was a spring in his step.

The set, which featured the Corona Symphony Pops Orchestra along with a handful of Bacharach’s regular sidemen, was chiefly a series of medleys interspersed with a few full songs and Bacharach’s musings and commentary. And at 82, he’s speaking his mind, even if it’s at his own expense. “Still can’t talk, much less sing,” he noted mid-show. “After four or five lozenges and a glass of Jack Daniels….?” The crowd chuckled.

He even dished on his days touring with Marlene Dietrich in the late ’50s; “It was great. I saw the world — but the music sucked!” That drew a gasp and then laughter.

The 90-plus minutes did a remarkable job of covering Bacharach’s remarkable career, starting with selections from the string of hits he and lyricist Hal David came up with for Dionne Warwick; “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Walk On By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’ ” were among the songs trimmed to a verse or two. It was almost heartbreaking to hear so little of so many classics.

The three vocalists traded off from song to song — Donna Taylor the most soulful, Josie James with a girlish whisper and John Pagano working it Broadway-style. The orchestration was nicely done, with a dominant string section and bright accents from the horns.

Bacharach would occasionally rise from his piano bench, as though he were too excited to sit; at other times, he would turn to conduct the orchestra, which felt more natural.

There were some non-Warwick hits: “One Less Bell to Answer” (the Fifth Dimension), “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (Bobbie Gentry, though Warwick did it, too), “Only Love Can Break a Heart” (Gene Pitney).” One of the songs Bacharach wrote with Elvis Costello in the ’90s, the stirring “God Give Me Strength,” proved just as strong as Bacharach’s earlier classics.

The medley format made for some odd juxtapositions — for example, the cheerful “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” (a perfect display of David’s quirky, clever writing style) was followed by the aching “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” But the pacing was so necessarily quick there was no time to quibble.

Then there was the movie music, from “The Blob” (”That film starred Steve McQueen,” Bacharach noted. “His career survived it, as did mine.”) to “The Look of Love” (a particularly nice reading of the Bond music, with Bacharach craggily chiming in) to “What’s New, Pussycat?” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” But Bacharach just couldn’t make it through “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” calling to his singers to take over.

“The Ricola cough drops helped a little bit,” he noted before singing “Alfie,” the roughness in his voice lending added poignancy; it served as the perfect segue for the melancholy “A House is Not a Home.”

That landed the first standing ovation.

He encored with “a song I wrote with one of my ex-wives,” Carole Bayer Sager, “That’s What Friends Are For.” Second standing ovation.

During the third encore, Bacharach dedicated “What the World Needs Now is Love” to the people of Egypt. Blissfully perfect. Third standing ovation.

The fourth encore — which actually seemed like a genunine, spur-of-the-moment addition — was a reprise of “Raindrops.” “I screwed this song up so badly,” Bacharach admitted, asking the audience to help out this time. They did, and then stood again.

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