It’s been a few years since Aretha Franklin’s come west for a big Los Angeles show. The audience at the Microsoft (formerly Nokia) Theater downtown at LA Live was sold out to the rafters and ready for the Queen of Soul. They got their money’s worth and more in a two hour show that featured a rare sequence of numbers with Aretha playing virtuoso piano and taking everyone to church.
The audience included Berry Gordy, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Shonda Rhimes, famed lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, as well as Tika Sumpter and the cast of Tyler Perry’s show “The Have and Have Nots,” plus “Band of Gold” singer Freda Payne, her sister Sherrie (once a member of the Supremes) and Glodean White, widow of Barry White and once a member of his group Love Unlimited.
Ms. Franklin, looking svelte and moving on stage like it was 1968, kept the show swinging from Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” right through her closing numbers, “Freeway of Love” and “Respect.” During the two plus hours, Aretha — channeling her late father Rev. C.L. Franklin– creates a church like gospel segment based on her “Amazing Grace” album. This part of the show features the great Melvin Williams, who recently performed with her at the White House. It’s part and parcel of an Aretha Franklin show, that the religious and secular meet with such ebullience.
The synthesis of this comes with her take on Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the show’s centerpiece. Aretha had a hit with “Bridge” after Simon & Garfunkel around 1973, and then Simon started using her gospelized arrangement. With Ms. Franklin as captain of the band, “Bridge” elevates to all new highs, a monumental and stunning effort.
She also treated the L.A. audience to more piano than usual, and it was about as wonderful as you can imagine. Aretha takes classical piano lessons but she is a natural musician, gifted in almost a genius like way when she hits the keyboards. She offered her lovely take on Ed Ames’s classic “My Cup Runneth Over,” a recent concert staple, which in the old days of vital radio would be released as a live single and hit number 1. She also played and sang on the Bergmans’ “How You Keep the Music Playing” and Lerner and Lowe’s’ “If Ever I Would Leave You” from “Camelot.” The range of composers is sort of staggering when you realize it’s Aretha leading the band. No other legendary vocalist does such a thing.
Her own hits? “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” “Natural Woman,” “Don’t Play that Song for Me,” “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” and most seriously, “Ain’t No Way,” the other great anchor of the show, I think, an unheralded classic written by Aretha’s late sister Carolyn Franklin.
Musicians: HB Barnum conducted the orchestra as he has for over 40 years. Richard Gibbs played piano. Fonzie Thornton, Vaneese Thomas, Brenda White-King — all extraordinary.
Aretha et al move on to Santa Barbara, Oakland, and Las Vegas before returning to Detroit. She noted at the end of this magnificent night that she vowed never to come west again unless she flew in a plane. Well, she didn’t– she came in her custom tour bus. You never know if this is the last time. This is history in the making.