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Mercurial Aretha delights in steamy concert

Classical standards and soul masterpieces make effective bedfellows at Wolf Trap concert



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)

1. Respect

2. Natural Woman

3. Think

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)


Music & Concerts

Musical icons and newer stars to rock D.C. this spring

Brandi Carlile, Bad Bunny, Nicki Minaj, and more headed our way



Brandi Carlile plays the Anthem this month.

Bands and solo artists of all different genres are visiting D.C. this spring. Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight will team up to perform at the Wolf Trap in June, and girl in red will play at the Anthem in April. Some artists and bands aren’t paying a visit until the summer, like Janet Jackson and Usher, but there are still plenty of acts to see as the weather warms up. 


Brandi Carlile plays at the Anthem on March 21; Arlo Parks will perform at 9:30 Club on March 23; Girlschool will take the stage at Blackcat on March 28.


Nicki Minaj stops in D.C. at Capital One Arena as part of her North American tour on April 1; Bad Bunny plays at Capital One Arena on April 9 as part of his Most Wanted tour; girl in red performs at the Anthem on April 20 and 21; Brandy Clark plays at the Birchmere on April 25; Laufey comes to town to play at the Anthem on April 25 and 26. 


Belle and Sebastian play at the Anthem on May 2; Chastity Belt performs at Blackcat on May 4; Madeleine Peyroux stops at the Birchmere on May 5; The Decemberists play at the Anthem on May 10; the rock band Mannequin Pussy performs at the Atlantis on May 17 and 18; Hozier plays at Merriweather Post Pavilion on May 17 as part of the Unreal Unearth tour. 


Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight will sing soulful melodies at Wolf Trap on June 8; Joe Jackson performs at the Lincoln Theatre on June 10; the Pixies and Modest Mouse are teaming up to play at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 14; Maggie Rogers plays at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 16 as part of The Don’t Forget Me tour; Brittany Howard headlines the Out & About Festival at Wolf Trap on June 22; Sarah McLachlan plays at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 27; Alanis Morissette performs at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 29 and 30

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Music & Concerts

Grammys: Queer women and their sisters took down the house

Taylor Swift won Album of the Year



When the late, great Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, her answer was simple: Nine. She stated: “I say when there are nine, people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” RBG did not attend the Grammy’s last night, but her spirit sure did. Women, at long last, dominated, ruled and killed the night.

Cher, in song a decade ago, declared that “this is a woman’s world,” but there was little evidence that was true, Grammy, and entertainment awards, speaking. In 2018, the Grammys were heavily criticized for lack of female representation across all categories and organizers’ response was for women to “step up.”

Be careful what you wish for boys.

The biggest star of the 2024 Grammys was the collective power of women. They made history, they claimed legacy and they danced and lip sang to each other’s work. Standing victorious was Miley Cyrus, Billie Eilish, SZA (the most nominated person of the year), Lainey Wilson, Karol G, boygenius, Kylie Minogue and Victoria Monét. Oh, yes, and powerhouse Taylor Swift, the superstar from whom Fox News cowers in fear, made history to become the first performer of any gender to win four Best Album of the Year trophies.

In the throng of these powerful women stand a number of both LGBTQ advocates and queer identifying artists. Cyrus has identified as pansexual, SZA has said lesbian rumors “ain’t wrong,” Phoebe Bridgers (winner of four trophies during the night, most of any artist) is lesbian, Monét is bi and Eilish likes women but doesn’t want to talk about it. Plus, ask any queer person about Swift or Minogue and you are likely to get a love-gush.

Women power was not just owned by the lady award winners. There were the ladies and then there were the Legends. The first Legend to appear was a surprise. Country singer Luke Combs has a cross-generational hit this year with a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” When originally released, the song was embraced as a lesbian anthem. When performing “Fast Car,” surprise, there was Chapman herself, singing the duet with Combs. The rendition was stunning, sentimental and historic.

Chapman, like many of the night’s female dignitaries, has not been public with her sexuality. Author Alice Walker has spoken of the two of them being lovers, however.

The legend among legends of the night, however, was the one and only Joni Mitchell. Not gay herself, she embodies the concept of an LGBTQ icon, and was accompanied by the very out Brandi Carlile on stage. On her website, Mitchell’s statement to the LGBTQ community reads, “The trick is if you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, it will probably make you cry and you’ll learn something about yourself and now you’re getting something out of it.”

Mitchell performed her longtime classic “Both Sides Now.” The emotion, insight and delivery from the now 80-year old artist, survivor of an aneurism, was nothing short of profound. (To fully appreciate the nuance time can bring, check out the YouTube video of a Swift lookalike Mitchell singing the same song to Mama Cass and Mary Travers in 1969.) In this latest rendition, Mitchell clearly had an impact on Meryl Streep who was sitting in the audience. Talk about the arc of female talent and power.

That arc extended from a today’s lady, Cyrus, to legend Celine Dion as well. Cyrus declared Dion as one of her icons and inspirations early in the evening. Dion appeared, graceful and looking healthy, to present the final, and historic, award of the night at the end of the show.

Legends did not even need to be living to have had an effect on the night. Tributes to Tina Turner and Sinead O’Conner by Oprah, Fantasia Barrino-Taylor and Annie Lennox respectively, proved that not even death could stop these women. As Lennox has musically and famously put it, “Sisters are doing it for themselves.”

Even the content of performances by today’s legends-in-the-making spoke to feminine power. Eilish was honored for, and performed “What Was I Made For?,” a haunting and searching song that speaks to the soul of womanhood and redefinition in today’s fight for gender rights and expression, while Dua Lipa laid down the gauntlet for mind blowing performance with her rendition of “Houdini” at the top of the show, Cyrus asserted the power of her anthem “Flowers” and pretty much stole the show.

Cyrus had not performed the song on television before, and only three times publicly. She declared in her intro that she was thrilled over the business numbers the song garnered, but she refused to let them define her. As she sang the hit, she scolded the audience, “you guys act like you don’t know the words to this song.” Soon the woman power of the room was singing along with her, from Swift to Oprah.

They can buy themselves flowers from now on. They don’t need anyone else. Cyrus made that point with the mic drop to cap all mic drops, “And I just won my first Grammy!” she declared as she danced off stage.

Even the squirmiest moment of the night still did not diminish the light of women power, and in fact, underscored it. During his acceptance of the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award, Jay-Z had a bone to pick with the Grammy voters. He called out the irony that his wife Beyoncé had won more Grammys than any other human, but had never won the Best Album of the Year. Yeah, what’s with that?

But then, it brought additional context ultimately to the fact that the winner of the most Grammys individually … is a woman. And to the fact that the winner of the most Best Album of the Year awards … is a woman.

Hopefully this was the night that the Grammys “got it.” Women are the epicenter of The Creative Force.

Will the other entertainment awards get it soon as well? We can hope.

Most importantly, in a political world where women’s healthcare is under siege. Will the American voters get it?

A little known band named Little Mix put it this way in their 2019 song “A Woman’s World.”

“If you can’t see that it’s gotta change
Only want the body but not the brains
If you really think that’s the way it works
You ain’t lived in a woman’s world

Just look at how far that we’ve got
And don’t think that we’ll ever stop…”

From Grammy’s mouth to the world’s ear.

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Music & Concerts

Janet Jackson returning to D.C, Baltimore

‘Together Again Tour’ comes to Capital One Arena, CFG Bank Arena



Janet Jackson is coming back to D.C. this summer.

Pop icon Janet Jackson announced this week an extension of her 2023 “Together Again Tour.” A new leg of the tour will bring Jackson back to the area for two shows, one at D.C.’s Capital One Arena on Friday, July 12 and another at Baltimore’s CFG Bank Arena on Saturday, July 13.  

Tickets are on sale now via TicketMaster. LiveNation announced the 2023 leg of the tour consisted of 36 shows, each of which was sold out. The 2024 leg has 35 stops planned so far; R&B star Nelly will open for Jackson on the new leg. 

Jackson made the tour announcement Tuesday on social media: “Hey u guys! By popular demand, we’re bringing the Together Again Tour back to North America this summer with special guest Nelly! It’ll be so much fun!”

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