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Aretha Franklin At Radio City Music Hall September 18th, 2009: The Queen Of Soul Stunning Performance Sparkles And Shines

The problem with these soul giants is that they think their presence alone is enough, that they can coast through 70 minutes sets joking with their sidemen, changing clothes off stage, disappearing into the wings for long stretches and letting back up singers carry the weight and I have absolutely seen Aretha Franklin do just that a number of times. So I hmmd and hawwed over investing in this concert till Friday lunch when I finally figured, “hey, if it’s a waste it’s a waste in tribute to a once genius singer and if it isn’t…”

The first song was Otis Redding, the next Curtis Mayfield. I’ve been on a bit of a downer the past coupla weeks, nothing major, just the usual petty humiliations of being alive, but Franklin’s version of Mayfield’s “Sparkle” is the first thing to make me smile in days and days. Everybody says she’s lost some of her voice? Where? “If you think you’re gonna fall all you have to do is call…” Mayfield, one of a handful of greatest pop song writers of all time, wrote “sparkle” with Franklin in mind back in 76 and listening to it now while remembering her performance last night I can’t see anything lost whatsoever.

The one question that haunts middle aged men like Nessing and myself as we write about music is what are we getting out of it? What does it give us? What Aretha Franklin gave me last night was a joy at the glory of creating soul music: she made me happy when I wasn’t. How good was Aretha? She took a piece of crap, Andrew Lloyd Webbers “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and made it an operatic soul masterpiece as she threw off glissando and stretched her vocal range while name checking President Obama. The president has not given me “another way to dream” but Ms. Franklin’s dream and mine are not coinciding here: it is cynical of me not to appreciate the true sense of pride the African-American population take in the President and any way I am ready to forgive Aretha ANYTHING if she can make Webber sound like Puchini instead of Liberace. Tonight, every song she sings is the best song ever written.

Before a twelve minute break Aretha performs a rocking “Think” and later on “Baby, I Love You” and an invigorating “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real thing” and she does her old pal Ahmet Ertegan , who co-wrote the song with Ben E. King, a lasting tribute. The complaint that she is tired in the funkier songs simply doesn’t apply toda nobody expects her to shimmy through these songs and though your heart might fall when she sits at the piano, it doesn’t for long. She starts with “Bridge Over Troubled Water” -stretching the word “Down” over five notes and builds the song to a funk and then Gospel crescendo before segueing into the spiritual “One Night With The King” and anybody who loves Franklin loves her first love (her father is a minister) Gospel. It is a wholly appropriate show stopping conclusion.

I don’t know if Franklin is like a boxer who can knock you out with one punch but can’t always connect, or a long term artist who still cares deeply about her music and delivering it to the people. However, simply the possibility of a concert this brilliant will find me previcating no more on whether to see her next time she is in town. Shine against your will, indeed.

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