Midler's madness is a bit more divine than music


Usually, when people describe a concert as "a good show," they're using the phrase in its most generic sense. Because even though most pop concerts involve elaborate lighting, stage sets and choreography, you rarely see any real show biz in the performance.

Unless, of course, the pop artist in question is Bette Midler.

Midler may owe her current commercial standing to oversized, sentimental ballads like "From a Distance" and "Wind Beneath My Wings," but she built her career on brash, bawdy shtick -- and she brought plenty of both to the Merriweather Post Pavilion last night.

She had singers. She had dancers. She had strippers (OK, they were the same women as the dancers, but they were in pasties). She had synchronized wheelchairs and a kick-line of mermaid flippers. About the only thing she didn't have were beefy guys in skimpy outfits -- but hey, she's gotta leave something for Madonna.

She also had jokes, and plenty of 'em. Some, like the vaudeville chestnuts in the "Gypsy!" part of the show or the Home Shopping satire in her "1-800-Delores" routine, were obviously scripted; others, like her complaints about the humidity, clearly were not. Most were hysterical.

In fact, Midler was so entertaining in the non-musical portion of the show that it almost seemed a shame when she stopped joking and started singing. Not that her big hits were given the brush-off -- "Hello In There" was unabashedly emotional, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" was ebullient and energetic, and "From a Distance" took on a poignancy the single seemed to miss -- but her singing on the other songs was uneven at best.

Some of that may have had to do with Midler's fondness for conceptual humor, like when she shreds the dour deadpan of "Miss Otis Regrets" by turning it into a full-throttle swing tune, a tack that's clever, but not terribly listenable. Mostly, though, it was a matter of vocal strain, as Midler's brassy warble wandered noticeably off-pitch during "Spring Can Really Hang You Up" and "MacArthur Park."

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