Niagara Gazette

Night & Day

June 20, 2013

REVIEW: Manhattan Transfer comes to North Tonawanda, and delivers

    The Manhattan Transfer, stopping at North Tonawanda’s Riviera Theatre last weekend on a fortieth anniversary tour, proved an old adage: hip comes and goes, but cool is forever.

    Oh, the four-part vocal jazz harmony was seamless, the stories and jokes were endearing and the hits just kept on coming, but the knowledgeable audience knew to expect all that. Performers hovering around age sixty (with one, anticipating back surgery, in a wheelchair) are expected, by a crowd more-or-less in its sixties, to drop the ball once in a while, or at least carry it a little more slowly. With this ensemble on this night, that never happened.

    The Manhattan Transfer offered a roll down memory lane all right, including asides and wisecracks galore, with absolutely none of the luster gone from an act put together in 1973. Two dozen or so albums later (and each album cast in a different musical style, swing or disco or salsa or jazz or vocalese and thus yielding a large palette of available material) the scalpel-like harmony, as well as the camaraderie, was evident.

    Cheryl Bentyne, Alan Paul, Janis Siegel and (in the wheelchair) Tim Hauser delivered a sophisticated and practiced take on the gamut of pop music in a 90-minute show, thrilling the nearly full house in the beautiful old theater.  The Inkspots’ “Java Jive”, Weather Report’s “Birdland” (with lyrics) and “Killer Joe”, each a part of the jazz canon, led to two doo-wop songs dedicated to Buffalo radio giant George “Hound Dog” Lorenz, who Hauser claimed to hear, many years ago, on his radio in New Jersey. That led to the gospel-inflected “Operator (Give Me Jesus on the Line”) and the 1964 Ad Libs’ hit “Boy from New York City”. Find another ensemble, another breakthrough group emulated but never really duplicated, that can demonstrate this sort of versatility and present it flawlessly.

    The “forty years in the business” aspect is perhaps the easiest to replicate. Plenty of show business old-timers go on tour and attempt performances before long-time fans. The Riviera Theatre hosts many of them (Charley Pride the day after The Manhattan Transfer, for example, and later in the summer, Vicki Lawrence as television’s durable “Mama”). Somehow this one was different.

    Jazz is demanding, as is vocal harmony and a keeping a catalog of material that tests the artists’ comfort in a variety of genres. The Manhattan Transfer has had all of this for forty years, as younger emulators came and went. The audience last weekend knew what to expect; it did not expect to observe the fastball of these aging wonders has not lost any of its speed.

    The Manhattan Transfer began, they explained from the stage, as a New York City cult group in the Seventies (they and Bette Midler had the same manager and same musical sensibilities). Their groove has never slowed down, and they roared through North Tonawanda with a mixture of class, sophistication, self-depreciating humor and exquisite singing.

    The way things go, it is possible this was their final trip through Western New York (their visits here have been rare, and include a joyful night on a stage atop Buffalo’s City Hall steps, with Niagara Square closed for dancing). For many in the audience, last week at the Riviera Theatre provided the sort of night that will long be held in memory --- that glamorous theater, The Manhattan Transfer offering a few tunes almost as old as the building itself, then breaking into some goofy number from rock and roll’s early days --- nights such as this do not come around all that often, and stay in the mind like the music you heard on little radios, long ago.

    Those who care about this sort of thing care about it a lot, and boy, the Manhattan Transfer delivered.


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