The Queen of Soul is back. Aretha Franklin shimmied on to the stage of Radio City Music Hall last night, danced across the footlights, testified church style, sang in her best gospel voice, played a wicked piano and led a two hour charge of power and light that can only be called historic.
At 72, Franklin has found a Renaissance. She’s lighter, nimbler, and in the best voice she’s had in 20 years. She must have known this was going to be a big show because she brought back her legendary conductor H.B. Barnum, not seen so often anymore. Her back up singers included Fonzie Thornton, who worked for ever with Luther Vandross, and Vaneese Thomas, daughter of the late Memphis soul legend Rufus Thomas.
Aretha appeared for the first half of her show in a red gown with bright silver shoes, a sedate affair that showed off her new svelte look. She also sported short hair, no Cleopatra style wigs. She looked younger and unburdened. This came out her in voice right away, as she moved from Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” to her own “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and her 80s comeback hit, “Jump to It.”
In between she revisited Curtis Mayfield’s “Sparkle,” and her sister Carolyn’s classic “Angel.” The sold out audience couldn’t get enough of it when the realized that Franklin wasn’t kidding around: she was singing like we’d gone back 30 years.
After a break– the orchestra and singers play Pharrell’s “Happy,” female dancers do some distracting business, and then Aretha returns in a sheer white lace gown. There’s a tribute to Whitney Houston (Aretha sits at the piano and sings “I Will Always Love You”), there’s a gospel section in which she testifies about overcoming illness and defying her doctors, there’s a return to “Sparkle” with a sublime rendition of “Giving Him Something He Can Feel.”
Franklin has a large repertoire of songs– huge, in fact. The set list changes every night. It’s all based on how she feels, what moves her. So Saturday night’s show wasn’t heavy on “hits” per se, although she returned for an encore of “Respect” that may have awakened Otis Redding in heaven. Even Aretha look surprised, using a mink stole jacket in a sexy vamp with front seat audience members.
She is the ultimate soul survivor. In Europe, Tina Turner, only a little older, has semi-retired. Aretha has defied all the odds. She’s lived through it. Watching her, you see genius at work. She has another show tonight at Radio City. Miss it and you’ll regret it. I was thinking that this was like when Sinatra toured with Ella Fitzgerald at the end of their careers. Everyone else pales in comparison.
By the way, Franklin had hoped to bring Rev. Al Sharpton on stage with her last night. But when she called him out of the audience, he wasn’t there. Rev. Al, you’d best be at Radio City Music Hall tonight.
PS She even tells a snappy shaggy dog joke. I won’t ruin it. Aretha’s picked up a thing or two after watching comedians deliver for 40 years. They’ve got nothing on her!