After earning 18 Grammy awards, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the moniker of “Greatest Singer of All Time” from Rolling Stone, what does Aretha Franklin have left to prove?
Well, to those of us lucky enough to be inside the Seneca Niagara Events Center on Saturday night, the answer proved to be an awful lot.
The ‘Queen of Soul’ treated her subjects to an all-too-brief anthology of her finest material, and unleashed each note with the radiance and unmitigated effrontery of an artist refusing to coast on the wings of the past. She took her chill-inducing mezzo-soprano to the limit, so any questions regarding what remained of her vocal power dissipated every time the audience silently absorbed the majesty of what they were experiencing.
If everyone had a Smartphone in their possession, I didn’t know it, because the gathered were too rapt by Ms. Franklin’s performance to care what was happening beyond the casino walls. In keeping with the spirit of her Gospel roots, it was Aretha’s house, and she was determined to make it a spiritual celebration to remember.
Because her catalog reads like a treasure trove of American classics, constructing a set that touches upon everything people want to hear can’t be easy, but I’d say she handled it quite well.
We were given snappy versions of “Think” and “Ain’t No Way,” forceful takes on “Respect” and Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” and a poignant piano interpretation of “I Will Always Love You” that saw Aretha paying tribute to Whitney Houston better than anyone I’ve ever seen.
Her affectionate vocal was complemented by a video montage sprinkled with photos from Whitney’s life including a few of Aretha and Whitney together at various stages of their careers, and I could feel the crowd’s emotions swelling with sadness.
In many ways, Whitney was following in Aretha’s footsteps during the ’80s and ’90s as she injected ability and sincerity back into the scene, and the fact that we’ll never see what a 70-year-old Whitney would do in concert remains one of pop music’s most jarring tragedies.
Of all the awesome moments this show offered, the one that left me stunned was Aretha’s soul-affirming expression during “One Night With the King,” which acted as a therapeutic vehicle for her to dig deep down and find something that the entire audience could coalesce around. If you’ve ever seen Springsteen live, you’re familiar with his concept of using the collective experience of a concert as a philosophical platform for healing and “building a house of joy out of sadness, a house of love out of hate,” and that’s exactly the way I felt while listening to Aretha do her thing on Saturday night.
She has the presence to make the pressures of daily life disappear from the moment her show begins and bring people together through their love of music. It’s a rare thing in the realm of 2013 pop culture to be so taken in by a performer, but, then again, this isn’t any ordinary performer we’re talking about.
She’s a living legend who isn’t ready to give up her throne just yet, so the fans can rest easy knowing that the tortured soul of popular music is still in good hands.