Thursday night at the Chicago Theatre, Aretha Franklin kicked off her first gig since last October with one request (and it wasn’t for r-e-s-p-e-c-t): “Please turn the air off so I don’t have to leave the stage.”
It was a welcome, though sweaty, reminder that the ultimate diva – who shuns air conditioning because it dries out her vocal cords – is back, months after being sidelined by a mysterious injury that forced her to cancel a string of tour dates last fall.
Emerging 80 pounds lighter in a sparkly, floor-length purple gown with a matching scarf, the 69-year-old singer spent the next 100 minutes proving she’s alive and kicking: she wiggled her hips, spanked her booty, even flashed some leg. And then there’s her voice, which at points had to dip into its lower register, but still packed its trademark punch on career-spanning tunes from Sixties gems “Ain’t No Way” and “Chain of Fools” to the saucy 1976 hit “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” and the sax-fueled 1985 smash “Freeway of Love.” During the 1973 soul ballad “Angel,” Aretha busted out a series of runs that would’ve made Simon Cowell weep, and prompted fans to shout things like “Work that mic, girl!”
But Franklin – who was backed by the killer, 21-piece Aretha Franklin Orchestra – didn’t only sing; she talked to the crowd, too. Mid-show, a giant screen flashing photos of Sam Cooke descended on stage, inspiring Franklin to recall the time she toured with the late soul icon. “We were in New Orleans, and he stopped by my hotel room,” she said with a smile, before kicking into a cover of Cooke’s “You Send Me” on the piano. “The next day, I stopped by his room. He wasn’t married then. Heyyyyy.”
The singer also shared the spotlight with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Illinois-based U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and celebrity Judge Greg Mathis, who she called “my dearest friends and supporters from Chicago.” (The men walked onstage, silently kissed her cheek, then scurried away.) Another guest was a Chicago alderman, who saluted Franklin on behalf of new Mayor Rahm Emanuel before informing her that the City Council had passed a resolution declaring May 19th “Aretha Franklin Day.”
Despite the honor, Franklin wanted to make sure her fans were onboard with her new material (her 38th studio album, Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love, was released earlier this month). “Do you like it?” she asked. “You can buy it on WalMart.com.”
As the show wound down, Franklin pumped out a slinky blues cover of B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen” (“Bring it home!” she yelled to her band, while strutting across the stage and lifting her dress to reveal her thigh) and a rousing rendition of the gospel slow-burner “One Night with the King.” As Jesse Jackson and Judge Mathis boogied in the wings, Franklin curtsied and exited the stage – then came back, four-inch heels in hand, for the pipe-busting encore, “Respect.” While she reveled in her umpteenth standing ovation of the night, Franklin spoke her last words, revealing her late-night party spot on Chicago’s South Side. “I’m on my way to Lem’s Barbeque.”