Live: Tony Bennett at Staples Center

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Tony Bennett did what he could to turn a sports arena into a cabaret Saturday night as the singer headlined a benefit for AARP’s Drive to End Hunger initiative at Staples Center.

Conceding to the promotional demands of his new album, “Duets II,” Bennett brought a pair of high-profile guests with him: Carrie Underwood, who appears on “Duets II,” and Stevie Wonder, who sang on the disc’s 2006 predecessor. And an enormous cake was wheeled onstage at the end of the concert in recognition of the singer’s 85th birthday last month.

But mostly this was Bennett as he might have performed inside a nightclub with room for a few hundred, not 20,000: casual, chatty, at the helm of a nimble four-piece band that brought attention to itself only at Bennett’s insistence. As he and guitarist Gray Sargent worked their way through a plaintive rendition of “But Beautiful,” you wondered whether the Lakers’ home had ever been quieter.

The understated approach allowed Bennett to showcase his still-powerful voice (most impressive Saturday in a whisper-to-roar “Maybe This Time”), as well as the good-natured humility that’s long separated him from some of his pricklier contemporaries.


Photos: Tony Bennett at AARP’s Drive to End Hunger benefit concert

Before a gently swinging take on Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” which Bennett recorded early in his career, he told of his initial doubt in his ability to sell a country tune; later, he recounted a disagreement with his record label over his desire to revive Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” at what he described as the height of disco.

Neither of these anecdotes carried the whiff of vindication you’d expect from, say, Frank Sinatra; Bennett wasn’t telling anyone so, as he made clear in “They All Laughed,” where his singing softened the defiance in Ira Gershwin’s lyric. In Bennett’s hands, that song, like several others, became a grandfatherly essay on the value of effort, an idea that seemed to resonate with the senior-heavy audience. (The singer referred to his advanced age in characteristic fashion: “I’ve been singing for 50 years,” he said before a sprightly version of Jule Styne’s “Just in Time.” “I’ll be honest: It’s been 60.”)

Bennett was no less generous during Saturday’s duets, first with Underwood on an appealingly Patsy Cline-ish “It Had to Be You,” then on “For Once in My Life” with Wonder, whom Bennett called “the greatest entertainer in the world.” At Wonder’s apparently unplanned request, the two singers also ran through “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” Wonder offering up a tart harmonica solo that drew an appreciative chuckle from Bennett.

For all the warmth of his performance, Bennett didn’t always succeed in making Staples feel as intimate as he wanted to; sometimes, the arena made him seem small, as when he flubbed the lyrics to ‘The Way You Look Tonight,’ despite what appeared to be his use of a teleprompter. In a club setting, such a mishap can serve as opportunity for more of the ingratiating charm Bennett delivered Saturday. Here, though -- in the kind of environment Sinatra routinely dominated -- it added to a sense that his act was being overpowered by the space, a low-key star at risk in a vacuum. RELATED:

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-- Mikael Wood