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Singing with heart, Bennett is going strong

Halfway through his show at the Bank of America Pavilion last night, Tony Bennett informed his audience that he'd been singing for 60 years, then added ''I'd love to sing for another 60 years."

Bennett may be a few months shy of his 79th birthday, yet it wouldn't be smart to bet against his continued longevity. Age has mostly spared his voice, and whatever he may lack in vocal nimbleness, he more than makes up for in his warm, inviting stage presence.

Here's a bit of advice for younger performers -- you won't last for six decades by treating your audience with contempt. To wit, Bennett ended every song with a huge smile, deeply appreciative of every ovation. Still, the true key to Bennett's perseverance is that he remains one of the premier interpreters of the Great American Songbook.

Bennett often engaged the crowd with stories and jokes -- ''When I was young, I had so many hits, I was the Madonna of my day," he quipped at one point. He also said it was Bob Hope who Americanized his name from Anthony Dominick Benedetto to Tony Bennett.

Still Bennett was at his best when he was singing, offering such evergreen tunes as ''The Best is Yet to Come," ''Speak Low," ''All of Me," and of course, his signature song, ''I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Especially moving was his rendition of ''Maybe This Time." Beginning with just a piano accompaniment, Bennett built the song's natural tension into a thrilling coda, proving he can still reach for -- and grasp -- the big notes.

The only lull came with a nepotism interlude featuring Bennett's daughter, Antonia, who sang two songs, including ''Sail Away," written by Noel Coward. No disrespect meant toward a father's pride, but Antonia's voice was just too shaky and uncertain to add much to the evening.

Opening the show was the Artie Shaw Orchestra, under the direction of clarinetist Dick Johnson. Performing such songs as ''Moonglow," ''Tangerine," and Shaw's haunting theme, ''Nightmare," they proved that while bandleaders may die -- Shaw passed away last year -- their bands never do.

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