Paying Respect to the Queen of Soul
She sang at Obama’s inauguration. She sang at King Curtis’s funeral. She even sang at Wrestlemania in its golden years, but after a lengthy wait and serial cancellations, Aretha Franklin finally came back to sing for North Carolina. In an evening in which the splendid moments outweighed both the perfunctory and the awkward, the Queen of Soul showed a sold-out crowd at the Durham Performing Arts Center last Thursday why she still holds claim to the greatest voice in rock and soul.
Fitting to the title, queens should roll with a hefty entourage. The 20-member backing orchestra that would pale the Funk Brothers by comparison would qualify as just that. A nine-piece horn section, a six-man rhythm and melodic band, four back-up singers and a conductor to bend them all to the will of Aretha’s titanic voice followed her every step of the way, even when she was nowhere in sight.
Her band began the night with light instrumental calisthenics that quoted her hits “Chain of Fools” and “Think” as her conductor, Fred Nelson, two-stepped between cues. Soon, a nattily dressed man that was presumed to be her manager walked out with her purse in hand. Aretha lore says that this event always heralds the start of the show, though the more apocryphal rumors state that that’s no ordinary purse. It’s actually purported to be Aretha’s performance fee, in cash and completely accounted for, placed right by her side where she can keep her eye on it. Her legendary fussiness aside, it makes sense for the conduit of so many feminist war cries to keep such a watchful eye on her stacks.
Aretha checked her pipes with a pretty, if cursory take on a familiar cover, Jackie Wilson’s time-tested anthem, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” her sleeveless arm wagging upward with the song’s uplifting hook. With nearly a month and a half since her last performance, her voice was clear and strong, given a spectral corona by the harmonies of her backup vocalists.
It’s the little touches that she lends songs that give them personality beyond what he voice or the band can provide. She offered one of her biggest hits early on, “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman,” shimmying to its sensual chorus as best as her 69-year-old body would allow her. Aretha popped herself on the behind as she sang the hook to “Something He Can Feel.” She provided narration to “I Wanna Make It Up to You,” her 1982 collaboration with the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs. “And then Levi would say…,” Aretha noted as her voice deepened for the line “I woulda loved you in the night” to match his silky baritone.
Though she might still be blessed with a voice from God, stamina has not followed Aretha into her twilight years. It was only a half an hour after taking the stage that she departed for an intermission, leaving her band to fill part of the break with an awesomely funky instrumental. The other time was spent rather dubiously. Mayor Bill Bell presented her with the key to the city of Durham, because of course she had only kept the city dangling for two years. Aretha looked only mildly touched, but remarkably more so than from whatever trinket the Durham alumna chapter of Delta Sigma Theta bestowed upon her. That she is only an honorary member of the for-profit sorority rather than a pledged sister could have offered some insight into her completely impassive body language.
She decided to come back not with another song, but rather with jokes. Her delivery could use a little work, however. The crowd, not yet wise that they were about to become victim to her witty repartee, was asked, “Have you heard about Muhammad Ali?” Naturally, one would think she was about to deliver some grave news, rather than a punch line. Rest assured, her flirtation with comedy has in no way endangered her day job.
The hit-filled second half featured an Aretha Franklin who was noticeably weaker vocally, as for the first time all evening her voice struggled to rise above the behemoth playing behind her. Her backup singers stepped it up for a driving read of “Freeway of Love,” and her grand finish of “RESPECT” was abated somewhat by a spoken verse and waning voice. She made it through, however, took a curtain call to soak in the adulating crowd and carried her purse off behind the curtain with her. That was about all the respect she was looking for, it seemed.