You realize we have been talking about Taylor Swift covering “I’m Too Sexy” and fighting with Kanye West. How silly we have been…
And then Aretha Franklin steps onto the stage of the Mann Center shed in Philadelphia on a perfect starry night for one of her last touring shows ever. She’s dressed in a white Badgley Mischka gown embroidered with small butterflies. When she first walks on stage she’s covered in a chinchilla jacket just in case it’s breezy or cold. She’s 75 and she’s chillin’ more than that chinchilla when she treats 5,000 fans to “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me.” And it’s all magic.
Aretha’s ninety minute show last night was one of those rarities– it defied expectations and then some. She’s always ‘good’– that’s expected– but something about the open air and a return to Philadelphia — where just two years ago she performed also outdoors for Pope Francis– catalyzed her.
Aretha is petite but last night it felt like she was six feet tall, radiantly giving a knockout show that had her voice at full power. She joked, she danced, she shimmied, she went to church, and god bless her– she played that grand piano like it was 40 years ago. Somewhere in heaven WC Fields heard this and said to his friends, “On the whole I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
There were some treats for the fans last night, too. She revived her 1972 Stevie Wonder hit “Until You Come Back to Me” complete with the knock-knock-knocks. There were two nods to the late Curtis Mayfield from his “Sparkle” soundtrack– the title track, and the sultry “Givin’ Him Something He Can Feel.” There was a rousing rendition of the Clara Ward Singers’ gospel classic “Old Landmark,” that sent Miss Franklin high stepping with abandon.
Conductor Fred Nelson has got her orchestra tight tight tight these days. And even though Aretha admonishes them as Nelson takes them through their paces, the effect is intimate, not stern. You’re seeing geniuses, perhaps the last of their kind, at work. It’s a master class. It’s like watching a NASCAR driver settle into his seat. And when she’s got everything the way she wants it, Aretha relaxes and her voice just soars.
The highlight, of course, is when she walks to that piano. The audience knows what that means and there are peels of delight. “Oh yes!” the woman next to me shrieked last night as Aretha sat down on the bench. “You play it!” And that she did, turning Jerry Butler’s “Brand New Me” into an extended, uplifting celebration. And then there was “My Cup Runneth Over,” an old Ed Ames song that Aretha renovated a few years ago into a truly stunning signature live number. She feels it the way she does her great numbers, and the feeling reaches the back rows of whatever theater she’s in.
And yes– there were the classics– “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Freeway of Love,” and a “Natural Woman” that rocked the house. Again, somewhere in heaven, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd, her Atlantic Records mentors, toasted each other on a job well done.
Next stops for Miss Franklin et al: Chicago, and Atlanta. In November she’s the featured guest at Elton John’s AIDS Foundation ball in New York. And yes again– she told me she does want to have a little nightclub in Detroit. She’s looking for investors. Do you hear that, restaurateurs? There’s a once in a lifetime chance there. Get busy!
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