Went for the Engelbert Humperdinck concert at Siri Fort auditorium on Sunday evening. The chief attraction was taking my mom, who wrote fan letters to him and Pat Boone and other golden boys back in the 1960s, but I was interested anyway. The first time I heard Engelbert’s voice was on his version of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" on a 16 Super Oldies cassette. It was one of my favourite songs at the time, still is to an extent – soulful and stately, unlike the original version (which I heard much later) by B J Thomas. The original is faster, more playful and goes very well with the slapsticky bicycle scene featuring Paul Newman and Katharine Ross in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the film for which it was written. But Engelbert’s version was deeper and more melodic and sent a thrill down my 11-year-old spine when he sang the words "So I just did me some talkin’ to the sun/And I said I didn’t like the way he got things done/Sleeping on the job/Wo-o-o...".
Later I heard some of his other songs, or covers of songs – in particular "A Man and a Woman" (evocative of the ethereal French film of the same title), "From Here to Eternity" and "Quando Quando Quando". It didn’t matter much what others said about him – that he was just a pretty voice without much depth or range, part of a generation of assembly-line crooners who didn’t write their own songs, that what he did wasn’t Art. Yarbles, I said, great bolshy yarblockos to the snobbery of the rock-n-roll brigade, I loved the songs and I loved the way he sang them.
What I don’t love is sitting in the Siri Fort auditorium for over an hour and a half, waiting for a concert to begin - first because of an injunction to be seated an hour in advance, and then because important attendees are stuck in Delhi traffic. I’m not a big fan of Siri Fort, a place where you can buy tickets for Rs 1500 and find yourself enjoying the same view as those who paid half as much. This auditorium incidentally is also where I’ve heard some of the stupidest words ever to issue from human lips, during speeches made at numerous film festival inaugurations. So we were all very glad that when the concert did finally get underway it just began, minus long preludes. Engelbert’s 13-member band started tuning up slowly, and then the man himself just sauntered on stage and began singing. The waiting and grumbling was quickly forgotten.
He started with one of his biggest hits, "A Man Without Love", pausing so the audience could complete the refrain for him; but there was hardly a hint of participation at this point. I sank low into my seat, convinced the concert would fall flat - my mom and I were discussing the likelihood that not many Delhiites of her generation would have been into Engelbert compared to say Bombay or Bangalore (where the concert tickets are being sold at much higher prices). But we needn’t have worried; it took some time for the audience to warm up but by the fifth or sixth song everyone was in the right mood, and the balding man seated in front of us commenced a series of "woo! woo!"s that somehow managed to be endearing rather than annoying.
As concerts by international artistes go this was relatively modest in scale, but then that’s what we were expecting. Most of the audience was aged between 40 and 55, there were no spectacular light-and-sound displays, just a 69-year-old man singing one love song after another with a lot of panache. You don’t pore over the lyrics of the kinds of songs Engelbert sings, which meant that apart from the older tracks (because we were all familiar with those anyway) there was a certain sameness to the numbers; one song segued into the next, the music was hummable but unexceptional and what really held it all together was the golden voice and the occasional showing off by individual band members. But the concert was at its best when the instruments weren’t allowed to drown out the singing.
There were some nice stand-up comedy interludes too: Engelbert (who by the way has a wonderfully resonant speaking voice too, which isn’t a given when you’re a good singer) did some mimickry, took part in a cheerfully risqué act with a thong that was brought onstage for him to autograph; made digs at Tom Jones, did an imitation of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk, even an Elvis-style bump-and-grind routine. He’s sprightly for his age but I suppose you can expect that once you know he does up to 140 concerts per year(!!). There were signs of tiring late in the proceedings; he started pausing more between sentences while he was talking, sang a couple of numbers sitting down ("because I’m almost 33, you know," he joked), took water breaks. Fortunately he found the energy to end the show in style, with a medley of songs including "Quando Quando Quando" and the classic "Release Me", and finally a rousing version of "My Way" (for many, that would engender unfavourable comparisons with Ol’ Blues Eyes Sinatra, but I love every conceivable version of that track, even Sid Vicious’s snarling, petulant one).
My one regret: Engelbert didn’t sing "A Man and a Woman". (I didn’t expect, or want, him to perform the intimate "Raindrops..." in this setting, with back-up musicians.) But that apart, it was a great night. As we left, my mother and her childhood friend, who had also come along, joked about the goofy expressions on the faces of the elderly ladies exiting the auditorium. "Now they’ll all have to go back home to their cranky husbands," they giggled. And boast that a nearly 70-year-old singer with black-dyed sideburns had released them from reality for an evening.