Aretha Franklin Stars in Kennedy Center Concert

R&B legend Aretha Franklin performs at a musical tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
R&B legend Aretha Franklin performs at a musical tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. (Susan Biddle - The Washington Post)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Someone made an entrance in the balcony, and the audience swiveled its attention from the stage. Flashbulbs popped, heads craned and a murmur ran through the crowd: Who was it? The Obamas? No: actress Cicely Tyson, who was royalty enough to satisfy much of the audience, including an impromptu cheering section that sent up unison cries of "Cicely!"

"The stars are out tonight!" crowed one audience member, settling back into her seat.

The real star was, of course, Aretha Franklin, the featured artist at the Kennedy Center's annual free Martin Luther King Jr. Day concert, held last night at the Concert Hall, for whom audience members began lining up as early as 8 in the morning.

Franklin's appearance, and the timing, helped elevate a concert that under regular circumstances could smack of routine. For a couple of years now, it has featured the duo Nuttin' but Stringz, a pair of hip-hop violin-playing brothers; the Rev. Nolan Williams Jr. leading the Let Freedom Ring Choir; and lot of worthy but wordy speeches introducing the winner of the year's Coach John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award. But last night the concert seemed, in all but name, another part of the inauguration festivities, on the eve of a swearing-in ceremony that is also scheduled to feature the Queen of Soul.

In a climate marked by a sense of thanksgiving, the proceedings resembled a worship service. The invocation by the Rev. Constance Wheeler gave rise to a melodious hum of "mm-hmms" and "Amens" as she thanked God for "bringing us through chattel slavery to this day." Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia evoked response with the description of a sweatshirt slogan stating that Rosa Parks sat so Martin could walk; Martin walked so that Obama could run; Obama ran so that our children can fly. And Marian Wright Edelman, the winner of this year's Thompson Award, gave an inspiring talk about stamping out poverty. As speech gave way to speech, it seemed increasingly likely that Franklin's appearance would be limited to a song or two at most.

It was not. Nor was it restricted to show-business glitz -- apart from the vivid red dress and the gold nails. Franklin took the stage, banished all memories of the long wait, and bathed in the gospel music that is her first love and seldom a staple of her more commercial performances.

"You all didn't know you were going to come here and have church with Aretha!" she shouted, as the scheduled 90-minute show stretched to two hours. Nobody was about to complain.

Franklin is a musical world unto herself, rotating in her own orbit, creating her own rules. As she performs, her flamboyance in dress becomes consonant with the big, glowing, outsize brightness in which she swathes her music. No song can survive unscathed when she sinks her teeth into it, worrying it, flipping it from side to side as she tosses back her hair with a manicured finger, shifts the mike in her hand and lets loose with another flood of notes that seems to take even her by surprise. "Help Me Lift Him Up," she sang, tacitly contributing to the Obama theme of the weekend, and followed it with "Make Them Hear You."

"One Night With the King" became an aching blues ballad, a song of redemption after a life of heavy living, promising forgiveness in the husky tones of someone who understands what it means to have something to forgive.

She can also change moods on a dime. "It wouldn't be right if I came and left and didn't sing a little bit of this," she said, reacting to a guitar riff, milking the guitar riff and finally launching into "Chain of Fools," the lone pop contribution among five gospel songs.

The largeness -- of sound, of emotion, of physique -- belies an intimacy that intensified as the evening went on. It is not just that her voice is a tactile presence: possibly a little thin on top, but with husky richness, velvet depths, stretching into thin toffee threads and coming to rest in a caramel clump. It is also an instrument of direct communication so that the lines between song and speech, between putting on a show and saying something real and meaningful, all gradually blurred into a uniform Aretha-ness.

There was plenty of stage banter: a reminiscence of King at breakfast at her father's house; a shout-out to the various members of her family who were present, including her 9-year-old granddaughter Victory, who debuted with her at Atlantic City last summer and gave her grandmother pause by announcing that she wanted to sing Alicia Keys. ("Did you say, 'Aretha, please?' Victory, you got to learn Grandma's songs!") And then (after "Precious Memories") she whipped the house into a frenzy of sound and dance, and sashayed offstage, leaving the swaying chorus, the ecstatic backup singers, a wild flash of tambourines and an emptiness behind.

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