The voice is no longer as big as the legend. Then again, legends don’t come much bigger than Aretha Franklin.
Franklin’s show Wednesday at the Music Center at Strathmore had a start so rough that only the biggest of legends could get past it. She arrived onstage not only long after the announced start time, but also more than 20 minutes after the house lights had gone dark and her 23-member backing orchestra had been seated. The players sat looking bored and embarrassed while the crowd tried to draw Franklin out front with rhythmic clapping or restless shouts. Any movement from the back incited anxious applause from the fans who thought this time it might be Franklin; one of the ovation receivers turned out to be a valet carrying Franklin’s hilariously monstrous purse, which he placed beside the only slightly larger Steinway grand piano. Strathmore staffers complained openly to patrons about the, um, dis-R.E.S.P.E.C.T. the performer was showing. When she finally showed, Franklin made no acknowledgment of the inconsiderations she had heaped upon her flock.
Diva means never having to say you’re sorry.
But get past it she did, in no small part because so many of her tunes have weathered the years so well. “Don’t Play That Song,” a glorious he-done-me-wrong song from 1970, had her shrieking “He lied!” She went back to 1967, and her first trip to the FAME studio of Muscle Shoals, Ala., for the hard-core R&B of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” She bopped along with the fans on “Chain of Fools.”
While the high notes were still there, Franklin, now 73, wasn’t able to summon the otherworldly vocal power she did earlier in her reign as the Queen of Soul, even though she was clearly giving the attempt everything she had. And for most of the night her phrasing was lost amid the sounds of her backup combo. There were also procedural stutters. Franklin lost her place and couldn’t keep up with the booming bass while covering “I Will Survive.” Her makeover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which she performed while playing the Steinway, was meandering. But, although she has been known to get hissy when everything’s not going well, this time around she smiled throughout the blips.
There was an ecclesiastical feel to the proceedings. She changed the chorus of Carole King’s “Natural Woman” to “He makes me feel like a natural woman!”
She brought out a choir from Morgan State University to back her on a long, preachy version of “Higher Ground,” a gospel tune she recorded in 1987. In between verses, Franklin gave a sermon/monologue crediting the man upstairs for curing her of ailments that in recent years caused her to be a regular no-show at scheduled concerts. “All you got to do is just believe!” she hollered, and the fans responded with a joyful noise of their own. It was as if Franklin wanted the audience to know that, despite her behavior earlier in the evening, she is convinced there’s a power higher than herself.
McKenna is a freelance writer.