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Steve Tyrell at the Café Carlyle, Dec. 22, 2011

A class act keeps a holiday tradition alive

Steve Tyrell

Steve Tyrell dropped a whole lot of names during his pre-Christmas performance at the storied Café Carlyle on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. President Clinton and his family, Rod Stewart, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Frank Sinatra-all of them were name-checked during the hour that the 67-year-old Tyrell commanded the stage. But none of it was gratuitous: Tyrell, between his two-decade career as a song stylist and nearly three before that behind the scenes, has rubbed elbows, professionally and socially, with many hotshots of different stripes, and those encounters each provided back story for a song or two: He explained, for example, that Chelsea Clinton’s first dance at her wedding was to his recording of “The Way You Look Tonight,” which Tyrell sang in the Steve Martin film Father of the Bride and again on this night. That high-profile appearance launched Tyrell’s career as a headliner, and as if to drive the importance of the point home, Martin was seen entering the hotel that hosts the café for the late show. The guy keeps A-list company for sure.

At the Carlyle it was easy to see why he’s so admired. Tyrell is a charmer, a salt-and-peppered Texan transplant who brings a perfect balance of grit and gloss to his preferred Great American Songbook and vintage R&B and pop repertoire. He hits all the right notes, puts on an engaging show, tells captivating tales and comes off as a down-to-earth, approachable fellow. Tyrell never steps out of the box musically; that’s not what he’s about. Whether he’s singing Sam Cooke or Rodgers and Hart, his interpretations are faithful to the composers’ intent, his timing and phrasing always in the pocket, never off-center. The arrangements are classy and classic, and his five-piece band is supportive but never show-offy. He is impressive without trying to be.

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