"What you want, baby, I got it," declared Aretha Franklin the moment she walked onstage at Wolf Trap Tuesday night. Wrapped in a sequined gown and looking much larger than life, she didn't waste any time delivering the goods either. The show was front-loaded with stirring versions of "Respect," "Ain't No Way," "Chain of Fools" and other classic songs that have come to define the pain, passion and pulse of soul music.
All too often in the past Franklin's concerts have demonstrated that even one of the century's greatest singers can be undermined by severely compressed medleys or frequent plugs for new and unworthy songs. Not this time around. The 90-minute performance was remarkably filler-free, and nearly every time Franklin moved beyond her familiar hit list, the results were rewarding and refreshing. Prime examples were her tributes to Ella Fitzgerald (a scat-happy "How High the Moon") and Sam Cooke (a gospel-charged "You Send Me," fueled by a brief turn at the piano).
Also welcome was a swinging reprise of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" which even prompted the singer to strut her ample stuff before yielding the floor to a pair of young and impossibly limber jitterbuggers from McLean. And while Franklin didn't make "My Heart Will Go On" truly worth hearing again, Celine Dion's version of the overworked theme from "Titanic" seemed awfully shrill by comparison.
Accompanied by her core band, including her son Teddy on guitar and a horn section of local musicians, Franklin could rely on the thrust of a big band when needed. Invariably, though, it was her voice--still immensely supple, resonant and powerful after all these years--that generated the most magnificent sound, pulling the audience to its feet as it cheered and clamored for more. Near the end of the show she rewarded the crowd with an expanded, full-tilt version of "Freeway of Love."
With her hands out in front as if grasping a steering wheel, she traveled to a place where gospel and soul music merge into one compelling shout. It was not a trip any fan will soon forget.