She’s still the Queen of Soul, even if she might forget a word or two.
Aretha Franklin performed for a rapturous audience at the Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, Saturday, where the 75-year-old R&B legend ran through her greatest hits, some gospel tunes from her formative years and even an Adele cover. Backed by a fabulous 21-piece orchestra and chorus, Miss Franklin hasn’t lost the edge in her vocals, even if, perhaps, the energy of her 90-minute show at times flagged.
Miss Franklin’s orchestra, conducted by the legendary Fred Nelson, opened with a medley of some of her greatest songs, including “Thinkin” and “Freeway of Love.” It was a bit of a head-scratcher, knowing that Miss Franklin herself would deliver the goods later, to be teased thusly. However, what this opener did showcase was the talent of the orchestra, about whom no amount of praise is enough.
After a recording detailing Miss Franklin’s bona fides such as being the first female to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — a bit much, perhaps, given that her status is already both established and legendary sans unneeded enumeration — Miss Franklin entered from stage right clad in a shimmering white dress, and bringing the audience to its feet.
However, the energy immediately dipped for “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” and “Sparkle,” which had concertgoers back in their seats and applauding, if not ecstatically, then appreciatively.
But then came “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” which roused the 7,000 seated and lawn-residing patrons back to their feet for the feminine anthem. “Chain of Fools” followed, which was a high point both for Miss Franklin’s voice and her backup musicians.
Miss Franklin then left the stage, and her band vamped on a theme for nearly 10 minutes in her absence. Mr. Nelson pointed to individual members in turn for a shot in the spotlight, allowing for particularly stirring solos from piano, guitar, bass and drums. Even in the absence of the Grammy-winner, the ensemble proved its musical chops. This may in fact be one of the best backup acts in the world.
Shortly after returning to the stage, Miss Franklin attempted a cover of the Adele hymn “Rolling in the Deep.” Her voice positively mastered the first line of the English artist’s seminal song of ennui, but then Miss Franklin more or less froze, hummed to herself, and allowed the rest of the first verse to go unsung as the band played on. She returned strongly on the first rendition of the familiar chorus, but one couldn’t help cringing just a bit at the lyrics lapse — either forgotten or simply unpracticed. It was the evening’s definite low point.
While temporarily replacing her own pianist, Miss Franklin, while plunking out chords and notes at an easy, unhurried pace from the gospel tunes of her youth, took time to introduce “a friend from Chicago.” Seated approximately 10 rows back from the stage, the Rev. Jesse Jackson stood as the house lights came up. The crowd gratefully applauded the civil rights icon, a friend of Miss Franklin’s of some standing, and who has been to several of the gigs on her current tour.
Miss Franklin bid the Wolf Trap good evening with “Freeway,” a callback to the instrumental medley that opened the show. Miss Franklin used the piano for support as she bowed deeply to the audience and was grateful to the gathered as she left the stage — briefly.
The familiar bars blared from the ensemble as she returned for “Respect,” unquestionably her signature tune and still an empowering song a half-century after she made the Otis Redding song her own in 1967.
The year 2017 marks Miss Franklin’s 54th year in showbiz, she told the Wolf Trap throng, which hooted and applauded genuinely at such an amazing stretch in such a difficult, often punishing business. Miss Franklin said earlier this year that this current tour is likely to be her last, but let it not be said that it will be because, unlike certain other performers of a certain age, her vocal spryness has in any way diminished.
Perhaps it’s better to step away while still out front of entropy.
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