Frank Sinatra died 17 years ago, but his music came alive last night (April 20) at Manhattan’s Spring Studios, the newly built home of the Tribeca Film Festival. As part of a year-long multimedia celebration of what would’ve been the legendary crooner’s 100th birthday, the festival hosted an all-star tribute concert featuring Tony Bennett, Ne-Yo, Brandon Flowers of the Killers, Alice Smith, Lea Delaria (of Orange Is the New Black fame) and tap-dance legend Savion Glover, which followed a special screening of a digitally restored version of the classic 1949 film adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town, which starred Sinatra and Gene Kelly.
The musical love letter to Ol’ Blue Eyes and his classic hits began with comedian/actress/musician DeLaria, who sang “Luck be a Lady” and “Just in Time” over the tight classic jazz of the J.C. Hopkins Biggish Band (the night’s house band) in front of a celeb-packed crowd that included her Orange Is the New Black castmates Emma Miles and Taryn Manning, Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Robert Deniro, actors Kelly LeBrock and Theo Rossi, and family members of Sinatra and Bennett. Delaria was followed by the kinetic moves of Glover, who danced to an instrumental version of “You Make Me Feel So Young” on a raised platform, in a nod to tap-dancing’s prominent role in On the Town.
Ne-Yo was next, and his laidback charisma — and signature fedora — were a surprisingly natural fit for Sinatra’s songs, which the R&B singer has cited as an inspiration in the past. Wearing a purple tuxedo jacket and undone bowtie, he swung through understated versions of “You Make Me Feel So Young” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” and then duetted with Alice Smith, the criminally slept-on Brooklyn soul singer, on “Lady Is A Tramp.” Smith also performed “Night & Day” and “Fly Me to the Moon” solo, and she was simply wonderful, letting her high notes ring and her low notes growl, and bringing a touch of welcome attitude to what could’ve been an awkward or stuffy affair.
Flowers (who’s releasing his second solo album The Desired Effect next month) had a tough to act to follow in Smith, but his movie-star looks and tuxedoed Las Vegas cred made him a more appropriate Sinatra stand-in than one might think. His voice started shaky over the band’s lush jazz arrangement of “The House I Live In” — a far cry from his usual rock backing — but steadied and even occasionally soared on “Come Fly With Me.”
Still, that was all a warm-up for the perhaps the only man living who can fill Sinatra’s shoes: Tony Bennett. “He was my best friend,” the singer — who released the tribute album Perfectly Frank in 1992 and founded a public school in Queens named after Sinatra — told the crowd. “He told everyone I was his favorite singer, and I’ve been sold out ever since.”
Bennett covered “Without a Song” and “In The Wee Small Hours” with his usual charm, even if his 88 years have given it some grain it didn’t have before. It’s hard to top a living legend singing a late legend’s signature songs, but Ne-Yo, Smith, Flowers and DeLaria tried on the concert’s finale with some powerful ammunition: “I’ve Got the World on a String” and, best of all, “New York, New York,” a great way to end any evening — ask the Yankees.