When all is said and done, with Aretha Franklin, a lot more is said than is ever done. The woman talks a big game.
The typical bluster was on display during a fiery, steamy performance at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center in Vienna, Va. The biggest mystery is the continual non-existence of her unfathomably delayed “new” album “Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love,” originally slated for a 2006 release. It’s become this epoch’s “Chinese Democracy,” the decade-plus-in-the-making Guns ‘N Roses album which did finally see the light of day in 2008. Last fall Franklin announced a January QVC-exclusive release to be followed by Wal-Mart-only distribution. An April release date came and went after a listening party was held in Detroit. She’s been previewing alleged album cut “I Adore You” for so many years it feels more like a staple of her set list than a sneak preview. She said Thursday the album would be out in mere weeks.
But thankfully Franklin doesn’t always follow through with everything she says. She claimed she was retiring after her 2003 tour and, thankfully, that never happened. The unwieldily monikered “I’ll Be Seeing You With a Song in My Heart Tour” (eventually re-dubbed the “Aretha Sings her Musical History Tour” and later “The Queen is On”), was re-configured into a Dylan-like never-ending tour that has been running almost continuously for the last eight years. There’ve been highs and lows along the way — some shows, like her 2008 stop at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, have had more empty seats than filled ones. But that now seems more like poor promotion than lack of interest as the house was packed at Wolf Trap.
And at other times Franklin’s shows have had a going-through-the-motions-like feel to them. Thankfully Thursday’s concert featured Franklin looking and sounding fabulous and in a playful, engaged mood. Yes, there were several of the usual quirks — what’s with that ever-present purse she carries on stage and does this woman ever give a concert without bitching out the sound and building staff? Wolf Trap’s outdoor setting eliminated her usual obsession with air conditioning but the sound guy didn’t get off so easily. She repeatedly asked for “a little more quality on the sound.” As if there was some giant “quality knob” on the mixing board he didn’t quite have turned all the way up for her.
Thankfully Franklin more than made up for the quirks with a nearly two-hour show (quite generous by her standards; I’ve seen her play barely an hour other times) that skipped and darted around several corners of her vast discography, often landing in expected places to the pleasure of casual fans, but keeping just as much spontaneity going to please the die-hards.
Carole King’s “Natural Woman,” a Franklin staple missing on her last D.C. stop, was a welcome addition to the evening as were other Atlantic-era staples like “Respect,” “Think” and “Chain of Fools.” Now that she records only intermittently and has barely scraped the charts since her Lauryn Hill collaboration in ’98 (“A Rose is Still a Rose,” which wasn’t performed), Franklin has filled in the dearth of recent hits with recreations of memorable live appearances, like her ’98 Grammy sub for Pavoratti (“Nessun Dorma”), and her 2009 performance at Obama’s inauguration. Thursday’s performance of the former was nearly as good as it was at the Grammys and thankfully oceans better than the lame rendition of it she turned in on her VH-1 Divas tribute show in 2001 when she turned her mic toward the audience instead of even trying the aria’s highest notes. And this week’s sticky mugginess was a welcome trade-off, vocally speaking at least, for Franklin’s inauguration appearance when she sang “My Country Tis of Thee.” Everybody remembers the crazy hat, but the performance that day was lackluster due to the cold. It sounded much better at Wolf Trap.
The evening’s best moments came during unexpected selections like a cover of “The Way We Were,” the encore “If You Believe” (from “The Wiz”) and yet another operatic selection, Handel’s “Ombra Mai Fu” from “Xerxes” during which Franklin announced another bombshell — a whole album of arias she says is coming “soon.” (I love the idea but with Franklin’s track record, I’m not holding my breath.) Purists scoff at Franklin’s soul-infused readings of the operatic standards and, of course, nobody expects her to sound like Renee Fleming, still Franklin, at age 68, deserves kudos for continuing to broaden her musical horizons and not just singing the same old songs she’s been doing for decades. And she seems not to take herself too seriously. After “Ombra,” she stood from the piano at which she’d been accompanying herself and curtsied with a deadpan expression. It was priceless.
Though it was the same gown and wig she’d worn just just two nights earlier for her appearance in Philadelphia with Condoleezza Rice, Franklin looked regal (and a tad slimmer) in a floor-length mother-of-pearl white rhinestone-encrusted gown with matching jacket/cape that came off after about three numbers. She made a great show of flipping back the long, layered jet-black wig.
The concert only lagged during non-Franklin moments such as a mid-set performance by a small troupe of hip-hop dancers who performed to a banal pre-recorded track (they also added choreography to “Respect” and “Chain”). The band’s instrumental jam was fun but a synth solo, while ably performed, was jarring for the big band style.
While Franklin is sometimes content to just let her show-closing vamp-out on “Freeway of Love” be her last number, she graciously added “My Country” and “If You Believe” to her set. It made for a deliciously full evening and one got the sense, even with the intense heat (which she commented on several times, joking that she was ready to don a bikini) that she, too, hated to see it end.
Things, as one would expect, aren’t as off-the-charts red hot as they were in her heyday. Though highly entertaining, it was a bit hard to hear numbers like “Dr. Feelgood” and “Old Landmark” Thursday and not compare them to the far-superior live versions she performed on her classic albums “Fillmore West” and “Amazing Grace” (respectively). Yet her vocals have a slightly richer, thicker timbre to them than they did even 15 or 18 years ago before she quit smoking. She lacks the breath control she had in her younger years so she doesn’t often hold the notes for very long, but she’s hitting more of them than she was even a few years ago and, approaching 70 and with all her musical siblings sadly gone, it’s great to hear Franklin in such fine form.
Aretha’s set list:
*Overture (instrumental medley of Aretha hits; band)
2. Natural Woman
4. Make Them Hear You (from “Ragtime”)
5. Old Landmark
6. Ombra Mai Fu (from “Xerxes”)
7. Baby I Love You
* hip-hop dance interlude
* Band jam (big band style with solos)
8. I Adore You
9. I Say a Little Prayer
10. Chain of Fools
11. Dr. Feelgood
12. The Way We Were
13. Nessun Dorma (from “Turandot”)
14. Freeway of Love
15. My Country Tis of Thee
16. Natural Woman (reprise; mostly band)
17. If You Believe (from “The Wiz”; encore)
* If You Believe (instrumental reprise)