Music And Concerts



Bette Midler Sings
The Peggy Lee Songbook

(October 25,

Critics’ Choice
Stephen Holden
Bette Midler

“Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook”

Part of being a pop singer, and of being Bette Midler in particular, is playing “let’s pretend": all right, boys and girls, who are we going to be today? Will we play it for laughs or for tears? On the “Peggy Lee Songbook,” Ms. Midler plays it for both, as she revisits 10 songs associated with that great Benny Goodman vocalist turned legendary nightclub singer. (A BaltoBoy Capture And Scan)

For Ms. Midler, whose personality is as strong and defined as any legend she could honor, playing let’s pretend doesn’t mean literally assuming another persona, but affectionately translating an alien mystique into her own language. Where Ms. Lee, who died in 2002, could become dangerously and masochistically tangled in a torch song, Ms. Midler’s residual optimism and humor reassure you, even when it’s pouring rain, that the moment’s misery is only a glitch in a fair-weather world.

It’s not that Ms. Midler can’t dive into the depths of a ballad. Her version of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” the dreamy Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein fantasy of marital bliss, is as deep and touching as Ms. Lee’s classic rendition on her Frank Sinatra-conducted album, “The Man I Love.” But what Ms. Lee evoked as a wistful faraway vision of contentment, Ms. Midler makes palpably present.

On the lighter side, Ms. Midler’s brassy-sexy “Fever” is an irresistible goof. And “Is That All There Is?,” in which Lee embraced disappointment and nihilism with a sly, sinister wink, is inverted into an exhilarating celebration of living in the moment.

The album, produced by Ms. Midler’s old pal Barry Manilow allows the singer and the songs room to breathe; it swings, and Ms. Midler’s vocals burst with confidence and generosity of spirit.

Editorial Reviews

Bette Midler and musical director Barry Manilow follow their successful tribute to Rosemary Clooney with a collection of songs immortalized by Peggy Lee.

It starts off with the inevitable “Fever,” which Midler does in a brassy, finger-snapping way that would feel more at home at the Sands c. 1960 than in a dimly lit 1950s boudoir. It’s a deliberate, clever choice that works for Midler.

The selection hits predictable bases ("Is That All There Is?", “Big Spender") but it’s hard to argue when those bases are so loaded. Midler actually sounds a lot more at ease than on the Clooney disc.

She handles the upbeat material as well as could be expected, but she also shines on the slower numbers, delivering sultry takes on “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” “I’m a Woman,” and “He’s a Tramp” (a song copenned by Lee, from the Disney movie Lady and the Tramp).

(Thanks for the photo scan Darrell)

The neglected gem in the collection is Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” popularized by Irene Dunne in 1937 before being covered by Lee.

Manilow’s arrangements are deliciously lush and Midler uses a slight vibrato at carefully chosen moments, somehow sounding as if she had suddenly been lifted back to the 1940s.

It’s a real treat that epitomizes an accomplished album. –Elisabeth Vincentelli

The Christian Science Monitor
October 28, 2005

Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook (Columbia) and Linda Eder: By Myself, the songs of Judy Garland (Angel)

(Scan: Da'Vi)

A half-century ago Peggy Lee and Judy Garland turned tunes into classics. But if those songs are to survive, they need new interpreters. Two of today's best take up the challenge and prevail. Bette Midler bows to Lee, whose simmering sensuality and deceptive simplicity made the Queen of Cool the defining sound of a buttoned-down era. Understated rarely applies to Midler, but instead she brings her expressive, supple voice and strong storytelling talents to Lee's hits like "Fever" and "Big Spender."

Linda Eder, less well-known outside Broadway and concert halls, comes close to channeling Garland but wisely doesn't try to mine all the tragic depths. Eder's gorgeous voice, in turns powerful or tender, fills tunes like "It Never Was You" and "Do It Again" with exquisite beauty and bittersweet pain.

- Gregory M. Lamb

All Music Guide
Review by John Bush

Bette Midler's first songbook album focused on songs popularized by Rosemary Clooney, and it became a surprising hit after being latched onto by vocal fans as well as adult contemporary audiences.

(Scan: Da'Vi)

Befitting her image, the record wasn't a reverent tribute; Midler and musical partner Barry Manilow modernized the arrangements of Clooney's bigger hits, recasting "Come On-A My House" as a swing/hip-hop number and reimagining "This Ole House" as a bluegrass song.

Midler's 2005 tribute to Peggy Lee is a more conservative affair, perhaps due to Lee's larger status in the realm of American song as compared to Clooney. That's not to say it's a disappointment; in fact, it's a talented, affectionate record that may not add much to the cause but is a solid tribute.

Certainly Lee's image as the bemused, world-wise, sometimes sensual siren fits well with Midler's, and both have exhibited an excellent rhythmic sense. And the material helps Midler flaunt as only she knows how, from "Fever" to "Big Spender" to "I'm a Woman."

While all of these contribute nothing more or less than Lee's versions, Midler does noticeably improve "Is That All There Is?," one of the most eccentric songs in Lee's repertoire. Her studied boredom in the verses is good enough, but when she reaches the uninhibited chorus, she reveals a marvel of catlike glee.

The arrangements, most of them by Manilow, are very good, although they reveal a close knowledge of the originals that contributes to the reverence on display.

Boston Globe
Oct. 28, 2005
CD Report

(Scan: Da'Vi)

Bette Midler

Bette Midler offers another vintage valentine to fans with this slick but
appealing collection of tunes made famous by sultry Peggy Lee. Midler's
vivacious Divine Miss M persona lends a fresh flair to such standards as
''Fever" (augmented by finger snaps and a lively horn chart) and ''Is That
All There Is?," fleshed out by a banjo rhythm. ''Let's keep dancing and
break out the booze and have a ball," Midler sings with a frolicsome edge
on this Leiber and Stoller composition.

Midler soul mate Barry Manilow produced the disc and arranged many of its songs, as well as adding a vocal harmony to the classic party tune ''I Love Being Here With You." Sings Manilow: ''Do you want to dance?" To which Midler campily replies, ''Don't
mind if I do."

Fans of the Midler/Manilow partnership will naturally relish this latest chapter of their chemistry. In fact, this may be a better CD than Midler's previous tribute, ''Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook," which was her last gold album. Midler not only has fun with these songs but exudes a welcome sensitivity on the sweet, strings-enhanced ''Mr. Wonderful" and ''The Folks Who Live on the Hill." And let's not
forget Midler's signature earthiness on ''I'm a Woman," in which she plays
a bluesy, sex-kitten role with a Hammond B-3 organ adding pungency.

Best of all, Midler delves into this fertile '50s and '60s era and makes it come
alive again.

Barnes & Noble
William Pearl

(Scan: Da'Vi)

Having paid tribute to one of her strongest influences with the 2003 album Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook the Divine Miss M now turns her sights on another beloved icon of song: Peggy Lee.

Wielding her trademark blend of tenderness and sass, Midler brings sparkle to such polished jewels of songcraft as "I'm a Woman," "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe," "The Folks Who Love on the Hill," and "Big Spender," reminding us of Lee's own fine-tuned radar when it came to a great song.

Wisely, Midler doesn't ignore Lee's own contributions as a songwriter: "I Love Being Here with You," done as a playful duet with old friend Barry Manilow, and the sparkling "He's a Tramp" are highlights of a program stocked with memorable performances. This apparent labor of love makes you look forward to Midler's next musical tribute.

The Vancouver Sun
Saturday, October 29,2005

Bette Midler puts her own spin on songs from the alluring and
enduring female jazz vocalist

by Greg Morago

(Scan: Da'Vi)

There comes a time in a pop artist's career when hits are scarce and reaching into the canon of beloved standards seems inevitable. But does it make sense? Does the world really need Clay Aiken's rendition of The Christmas Song? Or Rod Stewart's take on I've Got a Crush on You?

That's debatable. Plenty of pop singers have successfully mined the American songbook, most notably Linda Ronstadt. Now comes another familiar artist who proves that the songbook is full of glorious possibilities and indeed, wonderful music.

BETTE MIDLER SINGS THE PEGGY LEE SONGBOOK is the Divine Miss M's second successful venture into territory that Ella Fitzgerald made famous with her landmark series of songbook tributes. Last year, Midler scored with Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook, an idea that came from her buddy Barry Manilow. He produced the charming album on which she covered Clooney gems such as Hey There, Tenderly, Come On-A My House and You'll Never Know. The result was pure joy.

Midler again teams with Manilow on even more adventurous material. Scaling Lee, perhaps the most alluring female jazz vocalist of all time, is an Everest-grade expedition for a singer. How then did Midler make it seem so easy?

Her take on Lee's classics isn't so much an adoring tribute as Midler's own unmistakable fingerprint on iconic material. And yet, it's hard not to think of Lee when Midler gets He's a Tramp so scarily right. Lee's brilliant timing comes through on a bouncy Alright, Okay, You Win and Is That All there Is?

Midler, never one for holding back, shows beautiful reserve(just like Lee's magisterial restraint) on songs such as the sweet Happiness is a Thing Called Joe and The Folks Who Live on the Hill.

As terrific as Midler's Peggy Lee Songbook is, it invites the question: What's next? Earlier this week on the Today show, Midler hinted about another possible songbook of the music of Laura Nyro.

Now that would be something.

(Thanks for sending Bev!)

Peggy Lee Songbook
Bette Midler
Review by Pete Zorn Music

Some sage once said the life is a circle and everything eventually returns to where it began. So, I guess it shouldn't come as a shock that Bette Midler returned to her recording roots to teaming up once again with Barry Manilow.

(A BaltoBoy Scan)

Manilow was her arranger in the early New York days of her career and produced her first two albums: "The Divine Miss M," which won her the first Grammy for best new artist in 1973, and "Bette Midler," the platinum follow-up.

They toured, they recorded, and they fought. Eventually the feuding led to the professional breakup. But, despite the disagreements, they each held one thing in common: a love of the famed big band singers.

Two years ago Manilow and Midler teamed up for a retrospective on Rosemary Clooney. This time it's Peggy Lee.

The Divine Miss M says that Manilow came to her with idea of recording Lee's classics she instantly said yes. We're glad she did and you will be too.

Midler recalls that she had to pull back a bit from her usual belt-em-out style. Peggy Lee sang with such ease her sound was velvet - smooth and deceptively simple.

She was the defining sound of her era.

With unusual understatement Midler captures Lee bringing her expressive, supple voice and strong storytelling talents to Lee's hits like "Fever" and "Big Spender."

Yet Midler brings sparkle to ”I’m a Woman,” “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe”.

Manilow's arrangements are masterful while maintaining the integrity of Lee's originals.

The DualDisc edition of Bette Midler Sings The Peggy Lee Songbook includes a DVD side with all ten album tracks in enhanced PCM stereo along with five complete songs including a version of "Is That All There Is?".

There is also never-before-seen home movie footage of Peggy Lee, archival TV and film appearances by Peggy Lee, and interviews with Bette Midler and Peggy Lee's daughter, Nicki Lee Foster, and granddaughter, Holly Foster-Wells.

Greg Morago
The Hartford Courant
November 4, 2005

Bette Midler
'Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook'

There comes a time in a pop artist's career when hits are scarce and reaching into the canon of beloved standards seems inevitable. But does it make sense? Does the world really need Clay Aiken's rendition of "The Christmas Song" or Rod Stewart's take on "I've Got a Crush on You"?

Now comes another familiar artist who proves that the songbook is full of glorious possibilities and, indeed, wonderful music.

Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook is the singer's second such successful venture. Last year, she scored with Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook, an idea that came from her buddy Barry Manilow.

Midler again teams with Manilow on even more adventurous material. Scaling Lee, perhaps the most alluring female jazz vocalist of all time, is an Everest-grade expedition for a singer. Her take on Lee classics isn't so much an adoring tribute as Midler's own unmistakable fingerprint on iconic material. Midler, never one for holding back, shows beautiful reserve (just like Lee's magisterial restraint) on songs such as the sweet "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe" and "The Folks Who Live on the Hill."

Windy City Times
Pop Making Sense
by David Byrne with Tony Peregrin

Bette Midler Sings The Peggy Lee Songbook

The late Peggy Lee is saluted on Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook. After regrouping with Barry Manilow for her tribute album to Rosemary Clooney, Bette returns in fine form here with Barry as the musical director. Sultry sass keeps the temperature rising on the opener “Fever” and Disney should listen up on “He’s a Tramp” from Lady and the Tramp. Manilow even chimes in with Bette on the duet “I Love Being Here with You.” Sure, both Madonna and Sinead O’Connor have done takes of Lee’s classics, but Midler’s personality and versatility prove to be the ‘wind beneath her wings’ here.
Rob Lester

Columbia Records

This album is a dream come true. Before you accuse me of hyperbole, allow me to explain. Bette Midler got a phone call from the man who was her pianist, musical director and opening act in the beginning of her career. He said he'd had a dream that Bette recorded (with him) the songs of the great singer, Rosemary Clooney. They went ahead and did it. A success and strong seller! Lucky for us all, he had another dream about recording a Peggy Lee tribute album. It's another reunion and another prize.

With the odd credit of "all song layouts created by Barry Manilow" and produced by him (other arrangers are credited on individual songs), this album is filled with musical merriment and class. The sound is bright and the band goes to town. This is a barrel of fun with a couple of ballads to add variety to the mainly upbeat, rhythmic feel-good festival ("Alright, Okay, You Win" is a prime, good-time example). Less restrained than Peggy Lee, Bette is loose on the uptempo numbers. However, she shows little hint of her outrageous or bawdy side.

The Broadway songs include the wide-eyed lovestruck title tune from 1956's Mr. Wonderful and a perky "Big Spender" from Sweet Charity which, frankly, I wish had a bit of the brassier Bette. The final theater number, "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe" from Cabin in the Sky, is a revelation. Warmly arranged and conducted by Bill Ross, it's one of the best versions of the standard I've heard. Bette really finds a homespun authenticity in her reading of the lyric of contentment and commitment: "Sometimes the cabin's gloomy and the table's bare./ But then he'll kiss me and it's Christmas everywhere." It's like a warm, cozy blanket wrapped around the listener. The movie song, "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," is one of the most idyllic tales ever. It finds Bette in another Bill Ross dream, at her storytelling emotive best with Jerome Kern's majestic melody and Oscar Hammerstein's story of a devoted couple living happily ever after in their own kind of cabin (not in the sky).

Two pop hits for Peggy Lee written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are as different as can be. "I'm a Woman (W-O-M-A-N)" is a confident and brash smash. (It was also used in the songwriters' Broadway revue, Smokey Joe's Cafe.) The signature tune, "Is That All There Is?" takes full advantage of Bette's acting skills with its spoken sections between choruses. Don Sebesky's arrangement is credited as being based on the original by Randy Newman, but Bette's speeches have all her own acting choices, emphasizing different words and creating her own character. The mini-tales of disillusionment are taken seriously and she really breathes new life into the song, in the end making it less devastating and more the story of a survivor.

More fun is had with two songs Peggy Lee co-wrote. One is "He's a Tramp" from the Disney film Lady and the Tramp and here Bette comes closest to a Peggy Lee sound and style. The other is the happy "I Love Being Here with You," a duet with Manilow that has some cute banter. There's one song I haven't commented on because I haven't heard it: My preview copy is the standard issue, but there's an extra track on a version of this album sold exclusively at Barnes & Noble. That song is "He Needs Me," a fine song Peggy Lee performed in the film Pete Kelly's Blues. If you have a computer or DVD player, you may be able to access the visual component of the album showing videos of the same material. I'm a longtime Bette Midler fan, but I have found some of her albums to be wildly uneven. This one is even - and even better than most.

Palm Beach Post - Sunday, November 13, 2005
The A&E Downloader's Guide: Buy the whole CD, or just burn a few songs?
Our consumer manual is here to help.
By Palm Beach Post Staff Reports

This week's spotlight disc:
Bette Midler Sings The Peggy Lee Songbook (Columbia)

The downlow: After the success of Midler's tribute to Rosemary Clooney, here she takes on the cool '50s-'60s jazz vocalist's repertoire. Lee was one of a kind, but it's easy to forget that so is The Divine Miss M, despite all those cheesy movies and that failed TV show.

Track lineup: 10 songs

Buy it all or burn some? Buy/download it all. Midler doesn't channel Lee's quirky vocalizing here, but gives such familiar songs as I'm A Woman, Mr. Wonderful, Big Spender and, of course, Fever her own touch, with a little arrangement help from her ex-piano player, some guy named Barry Manilow. Midler has always been a great interpreter, and this is just sweet,
swinging adult music through and through.

Burn this now: Track 1, Fever. Bouncy, brassy, a total delight.

Don't get burned: Nothing terrible here, but her duet with Barry, I Love Being Here With You, is no great shakes. When it comes to Midler duets, seek out her one years ago with Tom Waits on I Never Fall for Strangers.

Grade: A

(Thanks to my Special Manilow Friend)

Morning Call
12 November 2005
Allentown, PA


By Larry Printz

POP Old-timers will recall Bette Midler's career was launched in the early 1970s with a rendition of the Andrew Sisters classic, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." Last year she came full circle with "Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook," from an idea suggested by Barry Manilow, who produced the disc. The results were good enough that this year she has taken on Peggy Lee's songbook. Lee could bring much to a song with her incredible control and cool detachment. Such words are not usually associated with Midler, yet she manages to put her own stamp on such Lee classics as "Big Spender," "I Love Being Here With You" and "Alright, Okay, You Win." She even holds her own on "He's A Tramp" and "Is That All There Is?" The only time Midler sounds like she is aping Lee is on "Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe." And the only time she falters is on the closer, "Mr. Wonderful," a track arranged by Ray Ellis, whose career dates back to a time when singers such as Lee were at the top of the charts. Still, for the most part, Midler, assisted by producer Manilow, naturally and unself-consciously brings a lot to material made immortal by Lee.

(Thanks to my Special Manilow Friend)

Chicago Sun Times
Spin Control
Miriam Di Nunzio
November 13, 2005

Hot on the heels of her Rosemary Clooney songbook homage two years ago, La Bette sets her sight on perhaps the torchiest of jazz singers. This time out, Midler seems a little out of her element. There's plenty of sass ("Alright, OK, You Win" and "I'm a Woman"), plenty of brass ("Hey Big Spender"). But she never quite grasps the biting wit of "Is That All There Is?" or the sizzle of "Fever" -- two of Lee's most piercing odes.

Barry Manilow is back as producer (they also worked together on the Clooney disc), and the arrangements are swell enough (but not nearly as exciting as those on the Clooney album). The disc is woefully short (consisting of 10 cuts, just over 30 minutes of music), and the selections don't dig very deep into the Peggy Lee songbook. Where Lee often brought her voice way down to a velvety purr, giving the songs their sensual persona, Midler seems content to keep the material just on the outskirts of Leetown.

However, the dual-disc edition will excite Midler fans with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage of Midler and the making of this album, as well as priceless film and TV footage of Lee, who died in 2002 at age 81.

USA Today
November 15, 2005

Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook (* * * ½) A singer known for her bubbly warmth may not be the most obvious candidate to cover the queen of cool. But the Divine Miss M's wit and sass make her a natural for I'm a Woman, He's a Tramp and the wry classic Is That All There Is? Midler also mines the poignancy in ballads such as The Folks Who Live on the Hill and Mr. Wonderful, al-beit with a lack of sentimentality that Lee would have approved of. —Elysa Gardner

Toledo Blade - Dec. 4, 2005
CD reviews
Bette Midler (Columbia)

Confidence never seems to be in short supply for the multitalented Bette Midler. It certainly isn’t on this album, on which she breezes through a great collection of Peggy Lee covers. Midler’s backed by a fabulous orchestra and gets a good assist on a duet from Barry Manilow, the album’s producer. The sultry Midler quickly dispels any fears that she is an unlikely match to cover the more subdued Lee, instead showing that she is a brilliant fit. The project works because of Midler’s insight and skills: She provides the right touch of sass and spark to make this something other than a routine tribute album.


The New York Blade
Is that all there is?
Bette Midler could do better than a middling rendition of the Peggy Lee songbook.

Dec. 02, 2005

Bette Midler must think she’s approaching her senescence. Where’s the great bawd from the Continental Baths era who used to entertain suggestions from the audience like “Show us your tits?” These days she’s a lady. She might as well be wearing a tiara.

Her musical choices have withered to old standards made popular four decades ago by dead (and inferior) singers. And her rendition of these uninspired songs is wearying. She doesn’t interpret them. She sings them as naked homage to the women who made them famous.

It’s testimony to the lack of new material available for divas of her kind that she’s had to go back to standards of a different era in order to come back with something palatable. God knows that the state of contemporary songwriting is execrable. Streisand faces the same problem. When she tries new material, it’s dreadful and she’s had to search Broadway high and low as well as the movies and a staged reunion with Barry Gibb to give the audience something to respond to. But Streisand has been canny. In her cover albums, she’s turned standards into signature tunes such as “Somewhere.”

With Midler, it started with an album called “Bette Midler Sings the Songbook of Rosemary Clooney,” a cult singer of the 1950s. The album was the brainchild of Barry Manilow, who reportedly dreamt Bette singing it. And as if that wasn’t enough, he followed up his dream with another one.

Midler, with producer Barry Manilow, has now upped the ante with an album titled “Bette Midler Sings the Peggy Lee Songbook,” which is a mismatch with Midler’s talents if ever there was one, and a real stinker besides. Included on the album are bummers like “He’s a Tramp,” “Mr. Wonderful” and “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” — an upbeat number that you can scarcely imagine Lee doing at all. (She apparently recorded it in 1947, which accounts for its obscurity.)

Peggy Lee was a mannered, sultry, almost rancid vocalist in the repressed style of the ’50s and ’60s. She had plenty of sex appeal — yet she was also cold as ice. She didn’t have much range and she underplayed just about everything. She was perhaps best known late in her career for “Is That All There Is?” — which she performed in Mae West-like drag with a big blonde wig and oversized sunglasses.

She also had a hit with “Fever,” and it’s hard to think of anyone else singing it. Midler tries but she doesn’t come up with anything better than Madonna did a decade ago.

Peggy Lee withheld emotion from the audience. Bette Midler gives it her all. You could almost say that Bette Midler is in love with the audience. Peggy Lee could scarcely be bothered. And that’s why it’s so disconcerting to hear Midler mouthing Peggy Lee’s sour lyrics even in songs like “Big Spender” and the feminist theme, “I’m a Woman” which you half expect Midler to parody.

Bette Midler doesn’t need Peggy Lee or Rosemary Clooney. She’s a great performer, making fun of everything, herself included. You could never imagine Peggy Lee laughing at herself. And with well-chosen covers like Midler’s version of the Beatles’ “In My Life,” which she did at the Johnny Carson farewell, she interprets the song in a way that makes you think her version will last forever.

The orchestrations on the album are thin and naïve. Manilow and company don’t try to update the material. They play it straight and corny right down the line. Let’s hope Manilow doesn’t dream of Julie London next.

I’d love to hear Midler do standards, just not the ones she’s chosen to do. This whole enterprise of singer songbooks reminds me of Natalie Cole’s duets with her dead father Nat King Cole and the “Saturday Night Live” parody pairing her with other dead singers. Bette should have seen the laughs coming.

Hitting Katrina From Two Directions
'Higher Ground' Has the Heart but 'Our New Orleans' Has the Soul of the City

By Steve Futterman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 7, 2005; C05

There are nearly 10 benefit albums with Hurricane Katrina on their minds, and doubtless more are coming. Bring 'em on. In theory, at least, when it comes to raising relief funds through music, everyone wins.

"Our New Orleans 2005: A Benefit Album" and "Higher Ground: Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert" stand out in the crowd. If their hearts and intentions lie in similar places, their execution reveals considerable differences. "Higher Ground," a live recording of a Jazz at Lincoln Center fundraiser in September, documents a generally satisfying evening featuring a multifarious musical crew -- everyone from Bette Midler, Joe Lovano and Shirley Caesar to Norah Jones, Wynton Marsalis and James Taylor performing a diverse repertoire connected only by a thin theme of life affirmation as expressed in song. "Our New Orleans," in distinct contrast, ropes together artists with New Orleans roots to record studio versions of idiomatic Big Easy anthems and tunes addressing the tragedy head-on. Both albums are rife with stirring performances, but the unity of "Our New Orleans" packs a far greater emotional punch.

The subtle hands of a few smart producers are all over the "Our New Orleans" project. Joe Henry allows the iconic singer, pianist and fellow producer Allen Toussaint to do what he does best: sell a performance through understated grace and casual instrumental brilliance. A definitive "Yes We Can Can" injects the album straight off with funky positivity, while his solo instrumental, "Tipitina and Me," gently evokes the spirits of Big Easy piano legends like Professor Longhair and James Booker.

Henry also hooks up the ever-majestic Irma Thomas with guitarist Doyle Bramhall II for a surprisingly successful, rock-infused take on Bessie Smith's 1927 "Backwater Blues." That mournful narrative, in tandem with Randy Newman's closing "Louisiana 1927," its intimations of political indifference intact, remind us that history, both natural and social, has a nasty way of repeating itself.

Producers Hal Willner and Mark Bingham elicit a world-weary eloquence from Dr. John on "World I Never Made" and a haunting "Prayer for New Orleans" from Charlie Miller, his voice, accompanied only by his own trumpet, as forlorn as a lone flood survivor clinging to the last dry spot in town. A bone-chilling "Cryin' in the Streets" by Buckwheat Zydeco, supported by guitarist and producer Ry Cooder, distinguishes itself among arresting performances from BeauSoleil, Eddie Bo, Davell Crawford and others.

The less-obvious artists who populate "Higher Ground" triumph through a quiet intensity that matches or surpasses that of the New Orleans natives.

In a solo, "Never Die Young," James Taylor relies on the offhand eloquence of his undiminished singing and guitar playing. Norah Jones also comes on restrained yet packs a sly punch with Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," its blend of irony and pathos as potent as ever. Irony raises its deliciously brittle head again in Bette Midler's "Is That All There Is?" (That this performance also acted as a preview for Midler's then-forthcoming Peggy Lee tribute album makes you wonder about even the best of intentions, though.)

The most impressive performances are those unburdened by self-conscious New Orleans trappings. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard's stately "Over There" (composed by his bassist, Derrick Hodge) expresses its message of pity and perseverance solely through vivid instrumental means. Pianist Marcus Roberts updates Jelly Roll Morton's "New Orleans Blues," skillfully avoiding cliches. And Irvin Mayfield, dueting with pianist Ronald Markham, renders "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" with a dignity enhanced by the relative suppression of the trumpeter's impressive technique. Dianne Reeves deserves extra points for saving the slobbery patriotic anthem "The House I Live In" through her focus and bravura vocalizing.

A few of the heavy hitters strike out. Diana Krall sounds unconvincing on "Basin Street Blues," Wynton Marsalis and his "Hot Seven" strained on "Dippermouth Blues," and Joe Lovano less emphatic than usual on "Blackwell's Message."

Cassandra Wilson rights all wrongs, though, on the album's capper, a rendition of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday" enriched by Mark O'Connor's gorgeous violin solo and obbligato. Ellington's simple plea to a higher power says all that still needs to be said: "Please look down and see my people through."