March 4, 2004
Colonial Center - Columbia, SC


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Bette Midler knows how to put on a show. For about 2 and a half hours, she alternated between tear-jerking ballads and gut-busting humor for a bi-polar concert experience like no other. Midler descended from the lighting rig on top of a carousel horse performing “Kiss My Brass” with all of the attitude that could be mustered. It wasn’t the music that was the highlight of this show or even the main focus, however. This was really a stand up comedy / variety show peppered with more expletives than a Chris Rock special and more glitz than Broadway ever dreamed. Bette (or her people) clearly did their homework. Many of her jokes were tailored to South Carolina perfectly. Zingers about the Gamecocks and their slogans (“you can’t lick our cocks”) were at the top of her list. She regularly caused a blush to wash over the crowd like the wave at a football game. The mostly upper-middle-class (and aged) crowd were both offended and delighted. At one point, when on a tangent about Rush Limbaugh and hypocrisy, she stopped herself. “Why am I telling you about hypocrisy? You had Strom Thurmond for a hundred years! I invited Essie May (Strom’s interracial daughter) to the show but she’s still out looking for her roots.” The crowd roared. On the other hand, Bette could turn on a dime. At one point, a video screen dropped and she did a duet with an onscreen Mr. Rogers. The song, “I Like To Be Told,” was meant to be about a child’s apprehension towards new things and surprises in general. Tonight, it transcended its original intent and felt equally as adult as childlike. Especially in the times we live, where the truth is such a rare commodity, this heartfelt tune struck home.

Of course, she did all of her hits. “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “I Think Its Going To Rain Today” were among the best received but she made a definite misfire with her cover of “When A Man Loves A Woman” that was stilted and forced at best. Later, she really fell off with an attempt at “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” The only thing that saved that was its context in the surreal story line of the second set. At first, I wondered it someone had slipped something in my drink at intermission. What with the mermaids in wheelchairs, fish headed trumpets and frenetic acting; a dosing made more sense than this actually happening. It was real, though – just a reprise of her classic “Fish Tails Over Broadway” shtick. Outside of the confines of the day-glow ‘70s, it felt a bit overdone, almost quaint – but it was still fun. As the show reached the 7th inning stretch, the hits returned. The sultry “Do You Wanna Dance” was followed by a song “from the last Bush war.” Of course, “From A Distance” elicited yet another standing ovation and soon afterwards, she wound up the show. For her encores, she chose a Rocky Horror like version of “Keep On Rockin.”’ “The Rose,” (which someone called “the gay “Free Bird.””) was the finale. At one point during her intro to the tune, she noticed the tears of overcome fans glinting in the light and she sniffled, “Stop it or you’re going to make me cry.” She then sang the song like the first time, swelling with emotion and sentimentality. Midler left the crowd smiling, even as their eyes watered.

(Chris McKay /

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