Aretha Franklin is a notoriously moody performer. Sometimes she just goes through the motions on stage, and other times she sings with unmatched fire. Saturday night at Constitution Hall, Franklin was right near the top of her form. Though she didn't totally cut loose, she did invest every note with all the vibrancy of her extraordinary talent. It was awesome to hear a human voice achieve whatever it attempted as effortlessly as Franklin's did.
Decked out in a purple Elizabethan gown befitting the "queen of soul," Franklin poured her heart into the emotional ballad lines before rising to the wordless exhilaration of falsetto scat syllables. She was pushed by an expert rhythm section of six, including legendary guitarist Cornell Dupree and drummer Bernard Purdie. She was backed by nine horns and three gospel singers, including her sister-songwriter Carolyn Franklin.
For most of the concert, Aretha emphasized ballads, most notably Carolyn's "Ain't No Way," which soared into stratospheric improvisations. She closed the show, however, with two furiously paced, vocally careening Otis Redding songs: "Respect" and "Can't Turn You Loose."
Luther Vandross, once a backing singer for Roberta Flack and Change, made his Washington debut as a solo act in the opening set. Vandross is a powerful singer who can sustain a note and milk it without bellowing. His ballads built from understated verses to churning choruses. His dance tunes, especially his hit single, "Never Too Much," wedded melody to rhythm. Between sets, Gray Cooper, star of the musical "Slick," did side-splitting impressions of a dozen performers, from James Brown to Jackie Wilson to Muhammad Ali to the O'Jays.