A knowing laugh rippled through the Academy of Music as Tony Bennett leaned against the piano and recited the opening line of "This Is All I Ask." Everyone in that audience, from the front row to the upper balconies, was keenly aware that the charmer crooning "As I approach the prime of my life" is 92 years old, an icon who has seen several primes come and ago over the course of a remarkable lifetime.
The reactions throughout Bennett's performance on Friday night took that unavoidable fact into account. Occasionally that meant wild applause for a simple touch that would have passed largely unnoticed in a younger artist's act: the raised old-fashioned glass (filled with nothing harder than water) at the end of "One for My Baby" or the slow 360 executed during "Who Can I Turn To?" But chiefly it was in the palpable reverence that felt more like an awestruck crowd gazing at a landmark than a group of concertgoers.
While Bennett's interactions with that crowd were restricted largely to simple gestures – the outreached arms that climaxed nearly every song, the self-hug that received their adulation, an occasional thumbs-up or salute – he held them rapt with undiminished charm and several decades' worth of accumulated goodwill.
Following an opening number by his quartet and a three-song set by his usual opener, daughter Antonia Bennett, the man of the hour strode onstage in a blue suit, introduced by the voice of Frank Sinatra calling him "the greatest singer in the world." Launching into "Watch What Happens," Bennett provided plenty of reminders of why Ol' Blue Eyes might have thought that: the relaxed, expressive sense of timing, the emphatic declarations, the ever-present grin, a constant reminder that while his singing may touch your heart, the singer is always delighted by doing so.
Those are qualities that remain strong, even as other elements of Bennett's voice may show the inevitable wear of time: a held note may waver, a once sweet tone may take on some gruffness, a bit of wordplay may get lost to the mists of time (most notably in the Gershwins' tongue-tripping "They All Laughed," mostly reduced to half-mumbled scatting), but the legendary singer's charm and elegance remain intact.