Review: Engelbert Humperdinck at The River Rock Show Theatre
It’s been about a year since we last saw Engelbert Humperdinck. Since his sold out show last year, the legendary pop vocalist has celebrated both his 80th birthday as well as his 50 year anniversary in show business. With a string of dates touted as the “50th Anniversary Tour”, Engelbert stopped back at The River Rock Show Theatre in Richmond for a two night stand, opening Friday night. The 90 minute performance served not only as a marker of what an impressive career Humperdinck has achieved, but also looked ahead with a strong stance, testing out new material on the crowd as well as the old favourite chart toppers and classics.
Opening the show with the Willie Nelson-penned, Patsy Cline version of “Crazy”, Humperdinck strolled out onto the famed River Rock stage, looking dapper as ever in a suit with a pop of red with his signature silk shirt. Within minutes, he began the onslaught of hits he’s performed throughout his lengthy career, beginning with what he called “Ahh, my old famous song”, “Am I That Easy To Forget”.
He paid tribute to the late Ray Price on Price’s “You’re The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me”. Humperdinck joked how he and Price had exchanged in a friendly competition early in their respective young careers when they released duelling versions of “Release Me”, which ultimately saw Humperdinck eclipsing Price (not to mention blocking out The Beatles at the time) on the top of the charts. When he did get to “Release Me” later in the set, Humperdinck announced “This is the song I’m celebrating tonight,” before joking “Every time I play it, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I have to get it shaved off.”
Although Humperdinck was just here last year, tonight’s show saw a wildly different set list, focusing more on the music than theatrics and too many jokes. Though it was nice to see Engelbert throw out the odd one liner, it was refreshing to see that the showman is still switching up his performance and catalogue for his fans. He did throw in the odd joke (“I don’t drink as a rule, but as a habit”) but focused more on the tunes tonight. He admitted to having some issues with a cough and cold, but the trooper marched on through his show like the seasoned performer he is.
Throughout the set, Humperdinck used his audience as guinea pigs to test drive two wildly different new songs as candidates for an upcoming single. The first was a James Bond-ready, lovelorn ballad declaring “I’d rather live a lie than say goodbye.” It was a refreshing, goosebumps-inducing version of the same Engelbert fans know and love, invoking a slightly darker, cinematic vibe to his oeuvre with a big, brassy sound. Later, the second option “I Followed My Heart” was classic crooner Humperdinck, featuring elements both reminiscent and sentimental. Both tracks explored entirely different sonic flavours, showing that Humperdinck’s voice can find a home in wildly different genres. Perhaps someone in the EDM world needs to collaborate with Humperdinck. Ho could easily team up with Calvin Harris or Major Lazer for the ultimate genre-hopping mashup.
In fact, the 2017 incarnation of Engelbert Humperdinck is ever evolving, acting as both a touchstone to the finer, bygone days of the music industry but also keeping up with the times. One moment he’s pulling a red handkerchief out of his waist to wipe his brow and blowing kisses to his adoring fans, the next moment he’s fist bumping with his guitarist after a killer solo. Half the fun of showing up for Humperdinck’s set is the unpredictability of his show. While so many of his colleagues and contemporaries turn out the same performance night after night, it seems Humperdinck is hellbent on giving his devout crowd new memories. The gals seated beside us told us how this was their fourth time seeing Humperdinck live, and how each time is an entirely new experience.
He even pulled out a cover of The Drifters’ “On Broadway”, highlighted by a fantastic video montage placing Humperdinck’s name on famous New York City show marquees. Somehow, Humperdinck manages to make a real variety of music fit cohesively within his set, ranging from western influences to show tunes.
The variety of performance elements throughout the night also varied. “Girl Of Mine” featured a bouncing-ball, karaoke-style lyric guide on the screen encouraging an audience sing along. “Quando Quando Quando” saw Humeprdinck parading around the stage delivering adorable choreography with his two backup dancers, following a personal story about being friends with Dean Martin and his own early start at the Vegas hotel circuit. During the three-times-platinum “After The Lovin'”, Humperdinck perched himself center stage on a speaker, getting close and intimate with the crowd during the heartfelt ballad.
All the old Humperdinck classics were present through the set, including the romantic “My World”, the easy listening favourite “The Last Waltz”, and a medley of others that were jammed together as if to show that Humperdinck’s hits are too plentiful for one performance. Hearing the string of “Les Bicyclettes de Belsize”, “There Goes My Everything”, and “Spanish Eyes” (among others) all in a row really encapsulated Humperdinck’s tenure and legacy.
Near the end of the show, the ever classy Engelbert Humperdinck proposed a toast to the crowd. “Here’s to you, here’s to me, here’s to friends we should always be.” A touching and sentimental sendoff that acted as the ultimate nightcap.
Engelbert Humperdinck performs again at The River Rock Show Theatre in Richmond on Saturday, March 11. Tickets are available here.