June 23, 2011 at 2:19 pm EDT | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Ignoring the staples

Aretha Franklin on stage at Wolf Trap Tuesday. (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

If you came for the hits, the evening was a huge bust. If, however, you’re of the mindset that an unexpected musical journey off the beaten path can still be a delightful evening, there was much to love at Aretha Franklin’s Tuesday concert at Wolf Trap.

A lot has happened since the “Queen of Soul’s” show there last summer. By fall she was suffering from a mystery illness Rolling Stone and other outlets reported was pancreatic cancer. But she emerged this year finally having lost much of the weight that has dogged her for decades while insisting the surgery she had wasn’t gastric bypass or any other bariatric procedure.

And for those who actually care more about the music than her personal life, it was the richest Franklin season in years — her years-in-the-making new album was finally released. Sadly it’s an overwrought mess but her Columbia era — the early ‘60s run that was Franklin’s major label debut — finally got the r-e-s-p-e-c-t it deserves with a lavish boxset release called “Take a Look,” a treasure trove of early Franklin material.

Considering how dire the health rumors were last fall, it was pure delight seeing a slimmer Franklin on stage this week. Though slightly hobbled by a broken toe — she still managed to shimmy a bit on the gospel numbers — Franklin looked and sounded great at Wolf Trap. After the first couple songs, the sound levels of her 21-piece band were perfectly tweaked and several moments, especially an unexpected cut from her 2008 Christmas album (“One Night With the King”) found the legendary singer belting and wailing in almost as pristine a register as she had in her Atlantic-era (late ‘60s) glory days.

Franklin, while exuding more graciousness than she has in other area concert appearances of recent years, seemed determine to do exactly as she pleased. Shockingly, none of her trademark hits were performed. “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Natural Woman” and “Think” were glaringly absent from the set list. It felt as though Franklin, at age 69 and with decades of performing under her belt, was ready to do as she damn well pleased. For casual fans seeing her for the first time, this had to have been a sore spot, but long-time hardcore fans probably found it a delightfully unexpected evening.

There were several covers, giving the evening a who-knows-where-she’ll-go-next feel. Several she’s never recorded. The standouts were a rousing take on Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” which opened the show, Keyshia Cole’s “I Remember” and most unexpectedly-but-most-deliciously, a soulful rendition of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Blvd.”

A few Franklin B-tier singles did find their way onto the set list — “Baby I Love You,” “Don’t Play That Song” and two songs her late sister Carolyn Franklin wrote for her — “Angel” and “Ain’t No Way.”

Things slowed to a near leaden stop during the self-penned “How Long I’ve Been Waiting” from her new album, but picked up again with “Sweet 16,” the B.B. King song that’s also on the new record, one of its few noteworthy moments. The Handel aria “Ombra mai fu,” which Franklin also sang at last summer’s Wolf Trap concert, provided nice stylistic contrast. Her Arista-era hit “Freeway of Love” brought the concert to a well-greased climax and gave her talented band plenty of time to throw down.

The ticket prices were reasonable — only $45 for house seats. But a concert like this raises an interesting question — to what degree, if any, should rock or soul legends (or any popular performer for that matter) feel obligated to perform their trademark songs? Can you imagine a Stones concert without “Satisfaction,” Tina Turner without “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” etc.? Some singers — Janet Jackson is a great example — seem determined to plow through every charting single they ever had, even if it’s just a few bars crammed into a compression-tight medley. Some would argue a career like Franklin’s makes it impossible to touch on everything.  She’s had nearly 20 Top 10 Hot 100 singles, after all. But as great as the evening was, without “Think,” “Chain” and especially the era-defining “Respect,” the concert felt incomplete.

Aretha’s set:
(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher/Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing/Baby I Love You/As If We Never Said Goodbye/Don’t Play That Song/Angel/Ain’t No Way/band jam (instrumental)/I Remember/How Long I’ve Been Waiting/Sweet 16/Ombra mai fu/You Send Me/One Night With the King/Freeway of Love/I’ll Be Seeing You (encore).

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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