At 72, the Queen of Soul has been a royal mostly in repose, laying low over the past decade; canceled shows and reports of ill health haven’t been encouraging. But with news of a major LP nearing completion, Aretha Franklin’s two-night run at Radio City Music Hall in New York City — a make-up for dates postponed in January — felt like a comeback, albeit a low-key one.
Low key for a queen, that is. On the first night, after a fanfare by her big band (led by longtime collaborator H.B. Barnum and featuring an 11-piece brass section), Franklin strode out in a lipstick-red off-the-shoulder gown and a fur stole, which she tossed onto the Hammond organ console. What followed was an uneven set that often felt like a private party, complete with Facebook-y slide show, rambling shout-outs to colleagues, a lengthy joke about a dog that ate Jimmy Choo footwear and, periodically, incredible singing.
Franklin introduced “Say a Little Prayer” as “a tune by Mr. Burt Bacharach — thanks for the million-seller!” With lead vocal parts delivered by her backing singers (a five-member chorus led by emeritus soul accompanist Fonzi Thornton), its unusual structure gave Franklin a chance to ramp up. Her voice has thinned a bit, but ramp up she did, unfurling jazzy, gospel-style vocal runs. It was followed by solid versions of “Angel” (her 1973 hit co-written by her sister Carolyn) and “Hooked on Your Love” (from Sparkle, her 1976 collaboration with the late Curtis Mayfield, who she described as “the black Bach”). But it wasn’t until she dug into her 1967 barn-burner “I Never Loved a Man The Way That I Love You,” swooping and soaring across octaves, that you could fully hear the Aretha of yore: fierce, tender, indomitable.
Then, six songs in, she was gone. The band riffed off a Stevie Wonder song, brought out three able-bodied go-go dancers, and laid into an extended version of Pharrell’s “Happy,” with the emcee urging the audience to dance. Pardon me? Why in hell should we be dancing to a half-baked cover of the year’s most overplayed pop jingle when we came to hear the Queen of Soul? Thankfully, Aretha reappeared before there was too much time to ponder that question, this time in a sparkling white gown that signaled it was gospel time. “Old Landmark,” the rafter-rocker from Franklin’s 1972 landmark Amazing Grace, turned Radio City into a Baptist church, Aretha calling the spirit with impressive force, kicking off her shoes to pad the stage barefoot, and launching into an extended testimonial section. “My name is Franklin; I come from a prayin’ family!” she declared, sharing a tale of receiving a grim medical diagnosis. “A few years later,” she continued, “I went back for my CAT scan, and they said, ‘what we saw in the X-ray before, it ain’t there no more!’ Can I get a witness?!”
She got many — the crowd, whooping and clapping, was old enough to be familiar with such scenarios. Sure, the show was too brief; it had sound problems, skipped a huge number of classics and petered out with a perfunctory reading of “Respect.” Franklin didn’t preview her forthcoming set, a reported collaboration with Babyface and Andre 3000 overseen by her old friend Clive Davis. (Aretha covering Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”? We’ll take two, please.) And the gospel interlude was a reminder that the long-stalled documentary on the Amazing Grace LP remains, 40-plus years after the fact, in limbo. And yet: in the presence of Aretha Franklin and her still-monumental voice, ultimately, one can only give thanks.