It’s not like Harry Connick Jr. is a postmodernist. There is nothing smug about his long, hard labor in the orchards of what are essentially abandoned musical idioms like stride piano, big band, and crooner-mania. He may be calculated in his musical affectations, seriously working something that nobody else is doing to milk the nostalgia dollars. But in a live performance, it doesn’t come across as contrived.
On the other hand, it’s hard to dismiss the idea of Connick as a throwback, and I don’t mean that in an entirely good way. It’s strictly his charisma that sold the songs performed at the Arlington on Sunday night. He’s Sinatra / Prima / Dion / Fabian, making the old new, though he sometimes comes across as an escapee from a planet of hipsters. There can’t really be a bunch of guys who talk that jivey way and dance that sexy mambo shake anymore, can there? Not outside of a theme park.
Connick practically charmed the underpants off the crowd Sunday night. But it was an act more than a performance, I’m a little sorry to say. Opening with tons of promise on his own composition “Come by Me,” Connick seemed to be trance channeling Fats Domino-and, in fact, the evening was billed as a tribute to New Orleans music. But the stride piano that rocked like boogie-woogie fell apart into his next number, an almost loungeification of the great Lee Dorsey’s R&B gem “Working in a Coal Mine.” And then, to seal his fate, Connick broke into “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey,” which is probably tough to sell in retirement villages nowadays.
The rest of the concert was controlled by this early DNA statement. Moments of brief brilliance on piano were followed by work that was almost shockingly cloying, such as in “Hello Dolly!” The biggest problem was Connick’s reliance on his band and guests like trumpeter Leroy Jones, who stood in for Satchmo. He used them like a crutch and his piano was often assimilated into a larger blandness. But when Connick strutted across the room, threw off his jacket and swung his hips, the audience didn’t care if it was living in the past. “I’m just having fun watching up here, too,” he said at one point. Some of us would have preferred more participation, though-a tad more beauty than bootie.