Like the hot-air balloon ride featured in his music video about his Kenya homeland, Roger Whittaker lifts his audience out of their seats and takes them along as he travels across the world singing love songs and ballads.
It's clear this singer-songwriter feels as comfortable singing and whistling an African tune as he does strumming his guitar and toe-tappin' to an Irish jig. This versatility and remarkable comfort with his audience immediately won over his Salt Lake, Symphony Hall audience Thursday night."The show works better with an audience," he says, inviting folks to learn how to whistle as he was taught as a boy in Kenya.
Born in the city of Nairobi in Kenya, Whittaker grew up surrounded by pounding African rhythms and learned "African-style" whistling.
Puckering his face, he demonstrates how to whistle without using any fingers. He describes his scrunched up face as resembling "a baboon's back side."
No self-consciousness here. Whittaker seems to know that his audience (who enthusiastically buys his tapes during intermission) adores him.
As he takes his listeners on an international musical journey, he tells jokes and folk stories about different cultures - Scotland, Ireland, England - eventually landing in the back hills of Kentucky.
The balladeer talks with the audience like an entertaining Scoutmaster sharing his best-loved tales and campfire songs. The audience laughs, claps and even whistles with him.
It's an intimate show. Whittaker is accompanied by David Fraser on the piano and synthesizer. The two men easily fill the hall with a rich and vibrant sound.
If you close your eyes when Whittaker whistles, you'd think a songbird had slipped into the place or a flutist from the symphony was also on stage.
The sheer power of Whittaker's voice is proved in his rendition of "Born Free." He then figuratively returns his audience to the land where their journey began - in beautiful Kenya.
The second half of his show reflects a more traditional and formal flavor. Illustrating his sense of humor, he enters wearing a white dinner jacket, black pants and tie and singing "If I Were a Rich Man."
The audience delights as he sings "Send in the Clowns" and "Memory."
He offers a different version of a Grammy Award-winning hit that he recorded before it became popular by another artist, Bette Midler - "Wind Beneath My Wings." Whittaker's interpretation seems more like a gentle love ballad compared with Midler's more stylized, soaring version.
No gimmicks. No flashing lights or smoke. Nothing in his performance seems contrived. Whittaker is genuinely talented and charismatic.
The man is unabashedly sentimental, and the audience loves him for it. (Perhaps it frees them to enjoy a few sentimental memories and journeys of their own as they listen.) He thanks his wife of 26 years, Natalie, for bearing him five children and for loving him through good times and bad. In tribute, he sings a song he has dedicated to her.
(Couples seem to be doing a lot of hand-holding during this tender tribute.)
He closes by singing a string of favorites. Applause breaks out when those familiar phrases, "You are so beautiful and I have loved you dearly, more dearly than the spoken word can tell," are heard.
Whittaker has just barely bid the audience goodbye, when the audience stands, clapping and whistling, demanding an encore.
The showman doesn't disappoint.
Two more ballads. More wild applause. And then he closes with a bit of rock 'n' roll in "We're Going to Have Fun Tonight."
Thrilled with the raucous response, Whittaker waves a farewell.
"You've been a remarkable audience. Good night and God bless."
And he seems to mean it.