Aretha Franklin’s Evening
By NATE CHINEN
Aretha Franklin performing at Radio City Music Hall in a concert
that included soul, pop, jazz, gospel and her son’s Christian rap.
Rahav Segev for The New York Times
An announcer hailed Aretha Franklin as the Empress of Music at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday night before reverting to her usual title, the Queen of Soul. Then the large assemblage of musicians wrapped up the opening medley and started into “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” And out came Ms. Franklin, moving at a processional pace, in an abundance of glitter and black chiffon. It was a manifest vision of music royalty, whatever sobriquet you choose.
Like any sovereign Ms. Franklin has her pride. She adopted the empress moniker after publicly taking umbrage after this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony (specifically, the part where Beyoncť saluted Tina Turner as “the Queen”). But indignation is the least intriguing thing about her new title, which forsakes the specificity of genre. Ms. Franklin really does have designs on an empire, as the concert intermittently proved.
The second song was “My Funny Valentine,” by Rodgers and Hart. She sang it in a stately cadence over a simmering groove, with plenty of drawn-out vowels and some stuttering hard consonants. Later she figure-skated through “Moody’s Mood for Love,” another ballad with a jazz history, in a way that felt more faithful than fanciful.
Of course she sang “Respect.” But it came so early that it seemed humbled, as if Ms. Franklin had a point to make about the rightful place of a singer in relation to a song. And immediately after the closing note, she enlisted her band conductor, H. B. Barnum, to fix a problem with her shoes. (To do so, he had to kneel at her feet.)
Ms. Franklin then welcomed Ali-Ollie Woodson, formerly the lead singer of the Temptations, to join her for a plaintive slow jam: Keyshia Cole’s “I Remember,” currently the No. 1 single on Billboard’s R&B/hip-hop chart. Ms. Franklin gave Mr. Woodson the bridge, the song’s lyrical and musical peak. This didn’t seem like avoidance of responsibility; it was generosity, and delegation.
Those motives, among others, probably drove Ms. Franklin to what she called her next surprise: an interlude featuring her son Kecalf Cunningham, a Christian rapper, who came with a backpack, a hoodie and some cheap-sounding recorded tracks. After what felt like ages, it was a relief to have Ms. Franklin return, energies renewed, to belt out “Chain of Fools.”
There were a few other soul throwbacks in the concert, but its greater substance was gospel music. On “Precious Memories,” which involved a powerful blend of several background singers, and “Ain’t No Way,” which featured Cissy Houston (though not in her original soprano role), Ms. Franklin sang with conviction, gravity and fire. It was here that her voice sounded most miraculous, and here that she dug in deepest with the band.
Ms. Franklin made a point of acknowledging not only her birthday — she turns 66 on Tuesday — but also Easter. For an encore she sat at the piano and offered a serene rendition of the Irving Berlin song “Easter Parade.” It was hardly the classic that her fans were clamoring for, but it was appropriate. And it was what had been decreed.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company