Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul Still Rules

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 7, 2007

No one pummels a lyric quite like Aretha Franklin. (Save the outrage, Lady Soul fans; that's a compliment.)

Even at 65, with her spotlighted space in the popular music pantheon locked down, the venerated singer tends to attack her lines like a prizefighter. She bangs away from every angle, using assorted combinations -- often to devastating effect. Her approach is wily, fierce and fabulous.

Just consider Franklin's treatment of one of her old hits, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)," on Thursday night at Wolf Trap. She methodically carved up the loping blues song's chorus, toying with the phrasing, as she so often does, before delivering the decisive blow -- a sort of lyrical rope-a-dope.

"I ain't never gonna love a man," she wailed.

Then came . . . a long pause.

Then, dropping to a low husk, all gritty and guttural, Franklin knocked the teetering lyric home, sounding perfectly desperate and despondent in singing " the way I love you."

Sweet science, indeed.

Franklin remains a force of nature, even after all these years of brilliant belting. She burrows into a lyric until she finds its emotional core. And her voice is still an astonishing instrument. Yes, she's lost some of her power and range (it has, after all, been some 40 years since she ascended to the throne as the queen of soul). But Franklin continues to sing with incredible intensity and command while working mostly in her lower and middle registers.

Of course, the woman who set the standard for gospel-infused soul music in the 1960s still tries to dial it up every now and then, with varying degrees of success.

Thursday, during the slinky "Something He Can Feel," Franklin began riffing on the bridge and briefly blasted into the vocal stratosphere before falling back into her current comfort zone. It was a majestic moment on a standout song that was punctuated by Franklin's playful end move, in which she finished the song by emphatically smacking her ample backside.

But on other songs, Franklin struggled to work her upper range and even acknowledged her limitations in introducing "Nessun Dorma." The aria, Franklin told the sold-out crowd, "has several high plateaus to it -- and, um, if I don't hit the highest plateau, just imagine it." Over a recorded track, she began to climb higher, then higher, then . . . well, then she waved her hand and stopped singing, just shy of the highest note. Franklin smiled. The crowd cheered.

All hail the queen -- even when she fails royally!

Franklin doesn't tour regularly, and when she does hit the road, she tends to bring along an expansive entourage. Her band -- the nimble if airtight Aretha Franklin Orchestra -- featured a 10-piece horn section and five backing vocalists. There were also two percussionists, a drummer, a guitarist, a bass player, a pianist, an organist and a conductor, who was introduced by Franklin's announcer. (This is to say nothing of the valet who emerged from the wings and placed Franklin's purse under the Yamaha grand piano.)

But everybody else becomes superfluous once the irrepressible Franklin sashayed onto the stage in a robin's-egg blue evening gown -- a satiny fishtail affair that exploded into a puff of feathers around the knees. With a matching satin wrap weaved around her shoulders and arms and a double strand of pearls hugging her bosom, Franklin wasted no time in getting down to business, opening with her signature song, "Respect." As she spelled out the title in a fiery, bluesy shout, it was clear that Franklin had no intention of presenting herself as some sort of museum piece.

And, in fact, the singer remains creatively restless. At Wolf Trap, she eschewed some of her best-known songs, from "Think" (perhaps too fast and high for her, circa 2007?) to "A Natural Woman," for new material: The 90-minute set included two songs from a forthcoming album, "Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love." Both songs -- one of which Franklin performed at the piano -- suited the singer's voice particularly well as they mostly avoided the high stuff. (Not that she ignored the hits, which included "Chain of Fools" and "The House That Jack Built.")

Franklin also performed a playful, properly swinging version of "Beyond the Sea," which featured a knockout vocal complete with authoritative scatting. It was a reminder that while Franklin is the female soul singer against whom all others are measured, she has considerable stylistic range. That, of course, extends to gospel, as Franklin, who grew up singing in the church, closed the set with two fiery gospel songs on which she set off on several vocal runs that recalled vintage Aretha. A one-two punch for the ages.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company