Review: Gregory Charles

I’m thinking that the Cafe Carlyle booked Gregory Charles in an attempt to take late Carlyle legend Bobby Short’s claim that he was “just a saloon singer” to a new place. Short was sincere in that claim – his earliest experiences as a performer were in the last days of vaudeville, and his brassy interpretations of standards owe great amounts to the “saloon”/vaudeville tradition of giving audiences the songs they wanted, with that something extra they didn’t know they wanted until the singer sang it.

To Short’s approach, Charles adds the more recent traditions of the piano bar “piano man” and the rock and roll “bar band,” featuring journeyman musicians with giant “fakebooks” of every song in existence. Only in Charles’s case, that “fakebook” is entirely in his head, and the band is a cut or two above “journeymen,” able to follow Charles wherever his nimble musical imagination goes, following his lead on songs they may not know that well, even adding witty improvisational cherries on top of this delicious musical sundae.

Gregory Charles is best known as a television personality and concert star in Canada; in addition to starring on the most-watched show on Canadian television (the reality talent show Star Académie), Charles is well-known in Canada for his unique summer music festival in Laval Quebec that draws a half-million spectators every year. In fact, it was on Canadian television that he introduced this audience request format, when he hosted his own popular Jimmy Fallon-style television talk show. He has since perfected it in front of audiences big and small around the world (including 5,000-seat arenas).

The videos you find on YouTube and his website – showcasing his French-language singer-songwriter side – do not give you an accurate picture of what you would see at the Carlyle. As a matter of fact that is probably impossible as the show is 90% requests from the audience. In the first few song of any set, he starts out with what amounts to a sophisticated version of “today in music history,” which on opening night included songs by George Gershwin, Cab Calloway and Louis Prima.

After that, Charles draws audience requests at random from a box. On the night I was there, the requests had a surprisingly “classic rock” bent that Gregory cheerfully and cleverly weaved into standards that were also requested. Since every show is unique, I don’t think I’ll be giving anything away by saying that Guns & Roses “Sweet Child of Mine” blends surprisingly well with Hoagy Charmichael’s “The Nearness of You” and Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose”, as Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Água de Beber” does with Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. Less surprising, but equally delightful, were mash-ups of “I’m Easy Like Sunday Morning” with “You are So Beautiful to Me” and “Stand By Your Man” with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”.

If the phrase “saloon singer” means anything in the 21st Century, it’s probably this kind of show. Highly recommended, and a whole lot of fun.

For tickets, click here.

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