Tonight’s most surreal moment arrived as Paul Anka sincerely queried his audience: “Anybody remember Nirvana?” Then, after a smattering of applause, the veteran singer/songwriter dove into a happy, big band, swing arrangement of one of Kurt Cobain’s painful laments. This was no spontaneous set addition my friends, because Anka’s most recent CD, Rock Swings, contains his Sinatra-y versions of alternative rock songs by The Cure, Oasis, The Pet Shop Boys and others. In fact, Anka sprinkled three more songs from this new release throughout the night. But such surrealism would have been too much to handle had Anka not also carried it off with profuse charm. And tonight—with his big, white, toothy smile and his quick wit—Anka made all these disparate pieces somehow fit together.
Paul Anka has been making records since the late ‘50s, so at this point in his career he can do whatever he pleases. During the singing of “Times of Your Life”, a video screen dropped down from the ceiling and began to run through various clips of Anka’s life as a musician. And there he was, a teen idol appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “American Bandstand”. Even though he’s probably best known for writing “My Way” for Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka has been a large musical figure for all of his forty-plus years in the business. This night’s concert was a reminder of that fact, with an exclamation point.
Anka began his show from the back of the room, singing “Diana”, his first big hit in the ‘50s. And if you wanted to see what octogenarian Backstreet Boys fans will look like, here was your big chance. With their walkers, canes, and wrinkled faces, they swooned and swarmed around the diminutive singer as he leisurely made his way to the stage. A few times on his journey, he stood atop chairs while singing his love ode. Anka racked up plenty of other oldies-but-goodies as well, singing “Puppy Love” and “Put Your Head On My Shoulder”.
Dressed in his sharp suit and tie, Anka perfectly fit the part of a casino lounge singer. So it made sense that he was playing a casino tonight—albeit an Indian one. And boy, were these natives restless! It looked like a reservation social gathering, at least toward the front of the audience—everybody appeared to know one other. And with the expensive way they all were dressed up, it’s probably true that these were the very same people making a killing off of all the dopes outside the concert hall - you know, those slaves to the slot machines. Similarly, these sharp dressed concertgoers most likely own some of the large mansions in the hills behind the casino. As odds would have it, so to speak, when Anka asked a lady to dance with him during “Put Your Head On My Shoulder”, she identified herself as a tribal member.
You’d probably be amazed by the bevy of songs Anka has written for other artists. Sure, everybody knows about Sinatra and “My Way”, but there are more, so many more. For instance, Anka also wrote “I’m Not Anyone” for Sammy Davis, Jr., to sing at the close of his ‘70s “Sammy and Company” TV program. When he got to it in his set list, the big screen was dropped again, revealing a close-up of Sammy singing Anka’s song. Then at the end of it, Anka joined in singing with the recorded track. Anka also co-wrote “She’s a Lady” with Tom Jones, which he robustly sang for us.
In addition to awkwardly recasting a Nirvana hit, Anka also put his fingerprints on a few other unlikely rock songs. His brass-saturated run-through of Van Halen’s “Jump” came off naturally, primarily because David Lee Roth was also quite the showman. In fact, it’s not hard to picture the old Van Halen singer singing his band’s big hit in this same swaggering way. Of course, any hip replacement surgeon in the audience would have suffered a coronary the moment Anka invited his aged audience to literally jump up and down while he sang it. Anka also took “It’s My Life”, originally a Bon Jovi single, easily weaving it into his set. His take on “Tears in Heaven”, the Eric Clapton ballad was similarly well placed.
Along with his old hits, songs written for others, and his newer rock covers, Anka also slipped in a few strictly Vegas-ready tunes. He performed “Mack the Knife” for his old friend Bobby Darin, and also led the audience in a sing along of “New York, New York”. Of course, he closed his show with “My Way”. But when he does it live, he mixes his vocal in with a recorded Sinatra vocal, and changes the lyrics so that he’s singing some of its words directly back at Frank.
Anka covered most of his career highlights along the way, though he wisely neglected to include “You’re Having My Baby”. This song was a chauvinistic little hit during the ‘70s, which inappropriately came along right at the inopportune height of the women’s rights movement. But in addition to the song’s political incorrectness, it just doesn’t swing, baby.
It’s easy to have lowered expectations when it comes to evaluating an artist like Paul Anka. He’s not the world’s best vocalist, and he hasn’t exactly caused a paradigm shift in the culture. But he’s actually a better singer than you might think, and he performs his songs with plenty of natural energy. He also knows his audience, and gives them the good time they expect. It also didn’t hurt that his band, which included a seven-piece brass section, was equally tight and lively.
Paul Anka’s Rock Swings CD may well help reintroduce this artist to the pop mainstream. But based upon the skills he displayed tonight, Anka probably doesn’t need this kind of hipster validation. He still loves to perform, and badly craves interaction with his audience. Rock can also swing, it’s true, but Paul Anka always has.