What's Harry Connick Jr. up to these days? To those whose reference point begins and ends with the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack, the answer is: a whole lot.
Country music? Check. Standup comedy? Check. Rap? Well, yeah, a little of that too, believe it or not.
Throughout last night's two-hour show in Santa Rosa, the pianist and singer proved how versatile he's been in the decades since “It Had to Be You” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” After opening with standards “Just in Time” and “More,” Connick's New Orleans roots quickly showed in a free-for-all horn battle that found Connick, on trumpet, trading fours with lead trumpet Leroy Jones and -- after losing -- splayed upon the stage on his back in defeat.
These dashes of theatrics come easy for the Hollywood-seasoned Connick, who's racked up over 20 screen credits in the past 25 years. At one point in the variety show, he clowned along with trombonist Lucien Barbarin to “How Come You Do Me Like You Do?,” with Barbarin copping the sashaying moves of a sassy drag queen before settling into a solo so flawless that Connick was behooved to retreat to a seat on the bandstand, out of the spotlight.
This is Connick the actor, yes, but it's also Connick the Big Easy ambassador; he gave full songs over to members of his band, including guitarist Jonathan DuBose, Jr., who belted out a faithful rendition of “Jesus on the Mainline” (the two sometimes perform the song together at church) and buoyed a sing-along of “How Great Thou Art.”
Those hymns of old abutted with new original material, including “No One Does 'I Do' Like We Do,” a full-on country song with acoustic guitar, a three-chord arrangement and Roger Miller-style skiffle drum beat. This was followed by “I Like the Way You Smile,” another new song, which featured Connick cautiously rapping on the bridge.
In fact, the show often felt like a merry-go-round of Connick's skills, switching from one style to the next in such rapid succession that one wondered where the baby-faced crooner of the Clinton era had gone. (After the show, I overheard a guy tell his wife: “I thought he was gonna do that good ol' Sinatra stuff.”) Even those weaned on Connick's early solo piano albums, the product of his study with the late keyboard giant James Booker III, might have struggled to find their adroit fingerwork represented; a jazz trio version of “I Concentrate on You” found Connick awkwardly stilted and off-rhythm in his improvisations.
Of course, with a high-profile job on American Idol, Harry Connick, Jr. is playing to a whole new group of fans who come for his personality as much as his music. That would explain the multiple set breaks of Connick telling stories and making jokes last night -- about the shoddy workmanship of his Moroccan shoes, about his failing eyesight -- to the delight of the mostly white, mostly older crowd. Even a decades-old joke about MC Hammer's pants went over well.
The crowd had already jumped to its feet several times throughout the night, but Connick's swampy set closer of Allen Toussaint's “Yes We Can Can” brought them to their feet anew. As an encore, Connick took a fan request for “Come By Me,” and suddenly, there it was: the barrelhouse piano Connick, the coy romantic Connick, the dynamic singer Connick, all in one quick burst. Is there anything the guy can't do?