Is there anyone with a voice as incomparable as Barbra Joan Streisand? No, although a lot of mighty fine singers gave it their best shot on Friday night (Jan. 11) at the MusiCares Person of the Year dinner here in Los Angeles honoring Babs.
MusiCares is a division of The Recording Academy, who put on the Grammys, which provides essential services for “music people” in times of financial, medical and personal need. The annual dinner takes place two nights before the Grammy Awards and is always a highlight of the week. Past honorees include Bono, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, James Taylor, Quincy Jones, Elton John, Neil Diamond and Billy Joel.
I’ve been fortunate to attend a number of MusiCares dinners and this was the best one I’ve seen in terms of trying to fit the right artist with the song. The could be because if you can’t really sing, you’re not about to show up and sing one of Streisand’s songs back to her. There have been odd mismatches in the past, such as Lady Antebellum at last year’s salute to Neil Young, but this year there were only varying degrees of good to really good to great.
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Among the great: Stevie Wonder and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval’s inventive take on “People.” Wonder totally wrapped his voice around the notes and then Sandoval’s continued the flight to another place. There was no subtlety in Jeff Beck, LeAnn Rimes and BeBe Winan’s over-the-top take on “Come Rain or Come Shine” and that was the intent. It was like a shoot-out with Rimes and Winan’s going toe to toe over who’s going to love the other more and with Beck joining in the conversation. In the end, it was a draw. Diana Krall’s reading of “Down with Love,” accompanied only by herself on piano and an upright bass, was wonderfully nuanced.
Shifting to very good, Lea Michele, who would seem to be the closest we have to an heir apparent to Streisand —and no one comes particularly close —shone on “My Man,” although she was a little shrill, something that Streisand never, ever is. Same with Leona Lewis, whose “Someday” was understated, but still potent. Faith Hill’s reading of “Send in the Clowns” was appropriately bittersweet and she wisely didn’t try to out belt any of the true belters in the room.
Nikki Yanofsky just turned 17 and she has an inspiring set of pipes, but she seemed a little outmanned as she tried to sing “On a Clear Day” while Herbie Hancock’s jazz interpretation danced all around her. She had trouble finding her footing, through no fault of her own. It would have taken someone with years of experience singing jazz, like Dee Dee Bridgewater, to have following Hancock’s delicious inventions. They were the oddest pairing of the night. Conversely, Broadway babies and “Glee” co-stars Matthew Morrison and Kristin Chenowith threw in just the right amount of drama for their spirited version of “One Less Bell To Answer,” playing off each other perfectly.
Of course, the real star was Streisand. The honorees have the option whether to perform and she decided early on that she would. And boy, did she ever.
After accepting her award from Prince (total content of his presentation: “And without further ado, the MusiCares person of the year, the woman of the hour, Barbra Streisand”), she gave a touching acceptance speech, but also acknowledged the world around her, referencing Egypt. “We have the potential for democracy to triumph over tyranny of dictatorship,” she said using that as a segue into a medley that brilliantly started and ended with “Happy Days are Here Again,” but had segments of “The Way We Were,” “What Are You Doing For the Rest of Your Life,” and “Evergreen.”
She then perched on a chair, poured herself some tea, and sang a few more, including...wait for it... an acapella version of “The Windmills of Your Mind.” She sounded like butter. Her voice is still astonishingly pure and on perfect pitch. She had a few moments where she sounded ever so slightly hoarse, but, at 68, she is still in full command of her instrument.
Below is a complete list of the songs performed at MusiCares by artists other than Streisand:
*Darren Criss (and the Warblers from “Glee”): “Who’s Sorry Now”
*Diana Krall, “Down with Love”
*Leona Lewis, ”Somewhere”
*Herbie Hancock and Nikki Yanofsky, “On a Clear Day”
*Lea Michele, “My Man”
*Jeff Beck, LeAnn Rimes, Bebe Winans, “Come Rain or Come Shine”
*Faith Hill, “Send in the Clowns”
*Kristin Chenowith & Matthew Morrison, “One Less Bell to Answer”
*Barry Manilow, “Memory”
*Tony Bennett,” Smile”
*Stevie Wonder and Arturo Sandoval, “People”