One of music’s most legendary artists brings along power and poise and a room full of memories
By Steve Houk
If you flip through the record album synapses of your life, a rare few of them spark and then spring out at you as unforgettable early moments in your growth, both as a person and a music fan.
For me, a 55-year-old on the edge of the boomers, it’s The Beatles, it’s Burt Bacharach, Neil Diamond, Herb Alpert…and yes, Barbra Streisand…that shine the brightest as artists whose music was most deeply woven into the fabric of life growing up on Millstone Road in the 60’s and 70’s. For me and millions of others, this kind of music acts as a blanket of comfort, a familiar sound, mindful of a time when life was full of love, wonder, and possibility. But the same music also acts as a chronicler of history, of time passing, of things and events and moments, both personal, and as a society, that have built the framework of our lives.
So when Barbra Streisand gracefully took the stage last week in Washington, she took her thrilled and devoted audience’s hand and led them down a path full of both personal retrospection and emotional recollection as well as a stunning look at how the world has changed over the decades since she first graced mankind with those pipes. In strong voice with just a hint of rasp, and also brimming with an onstage poise and confidence tinged with humor and wistfulness, she gave the sellout DC crowd a very rare moment in time: a couple of hours in the same room with one of music’s most brilliant and enduring voices, inviting them along on a sentimental journey for the ages.
Any concert that starts with “The Way We Were” is going to have some deep emotion, it’s just a no-brainer. And after telling the audience, “This is what the evening is about,” Streisand launched into the throat-lumping, mist-inducing title track from the movie of the same name — a song that cemented her legend status when it came out in 1973 — and never looked back. The 74 year-old icon, looking a good ten years younger, guided the adoring crowd — which poignantly included many wheelchair-bound elderly fans who no doubt braved much effort to get to their idol’s show — through the many fascinating pages of her long career story, most notably with other tear-inducers like “Evergreen,” “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” and her signature song “People.” Not only were you moved to recall her when she sang these songs so many years ago, but where you were in your life when she sang them. It’s that kind of music, creating swirling memories of long ago.
In looking back at her almost unparalleled cluster of achievements — as singer, songwriter, director, actress on both on stage and screen — Streisand fondly recalled a number of pivotal and personal moments. They included summing up her most famous film role as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and Funny Lady with a wistful yet defiant and energetic “Rain On My Parade,” conveying the pride in her experience as director and star in Yentl with a heartbreaking “Papa Can You Hear Me” and paying homage to dear friend Anthony Newley (another synapse) in a moving on-the-Jumbotron “duet” with the late star on “Who Can I Turn To.” She also admitted to wearing “musk only” in a “rebellious period” when she danced on the edge of rock and soul, illustrated by a buoyant version of Laura Nyro’s “Stoney End,” and amidst steamy pictures of her and her A Star Is Born co-star Kris Kristofferson, she crooned beautifully through “One More Look At You.”
But Streisand, who is on this mini-tour to precede the release of “Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway,” also used this rare live opportunity to remind her audience of what has happened, and what may happen, in the world around us during her six decades as an entertainer, and in a different way than the emotional reminiscence that dominated the evening, it was a powerful series of messages. She wondered aloud why she always seems to tour during an election — “and this one is a doozy” — and couldn’t help a few Hillary Clinton high fives and Trump jabs given her long standing as a close friend of Hill and Bill, saying she “passed the White House where Hillary is going to live” on the way to the show.
But more profoundly, her stunning rendering of Carole King’s “Being At War With With Each Other” accompanied by stirring video and photos of civil and societal strife from the 60’s to today, and her beautiful version of the Willy Wonka film tune “Pure Imagination” embellished by HD footage of the beauty and also climate change-induced destruction of the natural world, took the night away from simple nostalgia and injected it with an impactful sense of realism. It also no doubt caused everyone in attendance to remember how long Streisand has been a part of their lives, and how much has changed, or hasn’t, during that time.
For an artist who has not only performed for three sitting Presidents — Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton — but also won ten Grammys, two Oscars, five Emmys, a Tony and the Presidential Medal of Freedom over a career that has spanned almost 60 years, you have to be someone very special, a rare talent that really comes along once in a millenium. And from the first note to the last song, Barbra Streisand put an exclamation point on her legend status by not only giving a powerful and meaningful performance, but by reminding us all how closely we have been connected to her, in one way or another, all these years, and how we need to stay connected in order to make the world a better place. And for most in the packed arena, that made them feel like the luckiest people in the world.