It’s not every week that music fans get to share a room with a truly legendary performer. It’s even more rare, when those concerts happen, that the artist isn’t overshadowed by the legend: either slavishly trying to please the crowd by cramming a career into 90 minutes or simply not stacking up in comparison to hit records.
Aretha Franklin’s show at Austin’s Bass Concert Hall on April 19 (two days after her Majestic Theatre show in SA) didn’t quite fall into either of those categories. If it wasn’t mind-blowing or virtuosic, its value definitely went beyond the “Well, I can check her off my list now” factor.
The night’s opening moments were enough to put fans on guard: With the words, “ladies and gentlemen, the Aretha Franklin Orchestra!” a screen above the stage began a slide show tilted conspicuously to amateurish recent snapshots and album covers from the ’80s while a quartet of backup singers medleyed their way through such unmemorable late hits as “So Damn Happy.” Was this going to be one of those disasters where an iconic artist pretends the best half of her career never happened?
That fear was laid to rest as soon as the singer took the stage. “What you want —,” she wailed, and the crowd knew that a) they were going to get the songs they expected to hear, and b) this woman can still sing.
And how. If the passing years and extra pounds have limited her lungs’ ability to sustain a long phrase — not that a lack of long phrases was conspicuous — Franklin’s size seems to work to her advantage, opera-star style, when it comes to projecting a voice that was powerful to begin with. She belted, shouted, and casually tossed off melismas other singers would’ve begged you to notice.
Happily, she wasn’t indulging in the kind of hits-medley cop-out that many stars (Al Green, we’re looking at you) employ, stringing together choruses like a laundry list. Franklin’s numbers had beginnings, middles, and ends, and for the most part were supported with solid arrangements from a band boasting a large horn section, piano and organ, two percussionists, and the aforementioned backup singers.
Having said that, it was interesting to note that those occasions when she gave her voice a rest, speaking a few lines instead of singing them, came exclusively during her best-loved songs. Those of us who think “my doctor said, take it eeeeasyy” is the undeniable climax to “Chain of Fools,” for instance, were disappointed that she chose that section to relax. Franklin kept up her energy throughout the more obscure songs, though, as if tacitly acknowledging that they needed more selling than the others.
Sales pitch or no, the audience was already sold. Franklin was greeted by a standing ovation, and on average the crowd rose to its feet every other song. It was like being back in church, although I’ve never been to a church where the minister licks her finger and holds it to her hip to show what being a “natural woman” feels like.
There was a break 30 minutes in, allowing the singer time off-stage while the band traded solos; when she returned, Franklin had more or less had enough of soul’s greatest hits. She plucked a few tunes from recent albums (they weren’t horrible), and the most familiar soul gem, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” was one more commonly associated with Jackie Wilson. Sadly, when the time came to turn to Jesus, Franklin ignored her own mammoth gospel catalog in favor of a cover (“One Night With the King”) that was the evening’s worst song.
Frequent concertgoers, familiar with set-list strategy, sat waiting for the return of crowd-pleasing tunes to close the show. Astonishingly, Franklin’s idea of a finale was “Freeway of Love,” which ended in a long jam that probably equaled the running time of “Think” and “Respect” combined.
Surely an encore was coming? “Rock Steady”? “Until You Come Back to Me”? “I Never Loved A Man (the Way That I Love You)”?
Nope. Just two curtain calls and a second peek at the Slide Show of Scary Snapshots. Aretha had come, put in her contractual stage time, and proved she still had it. We walked out a bit confused, but happy to have caught one of the greatest pop singers ever, before her talent fades.