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Arts and Entertainment

Aretha Franklin @ Hollywood Bowl 6/27/09

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“Did I dare to wear my tightest gown tonight?”

Not having access to Aretha Franklin’s wardrobe closet, we can’t say for sure, though after checking out the figure-hugging rhinestone-studded black number she’d just changed into, it seemed likely. Why not, it was a night for bold moves. A short time later, she’d dare openly lust after our President (“Brother is fiiiine… mmmm!"). Judging from the rapturous response generated by her every word, Franklin could have dared to do just about anything. Who can complain when the singing’s this good?

That voice, one of the most stirring sounds ever heard in American music, is not completely untouched by time, and now showing a bit less power in its upper register. But her remarkable sense of tonality and phrasing remains completely intact. And to experience it in its full glory, live in person, is an undeniably emotional experience.

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Backed by a full orchestra and choir, led by orchestrator and conductor H.B. Barnum, Franklin’s set focused on her most revered catalog of R&B classics, the Atlantic years, though one of the night’s finest performances came as she accompanied herself on piano to a song from her forthcoming album. Sensitivity to temperature and altitude have made live appearances outside the Detroit area relatively rare, and she noted that, while “Mother Nature got the best of me” during her 2007 show at the Greek Theater, she was taking steps (heat lamps on the stage, and a total prohibition against backstage air conditioning) to prevent a repeat occurrence. Whatever she’s doing, it seemed to be working, though I sure feel for the crew that has to work a summer tour with no AC.

Uptempo belters like “Respect”, “Chain Of Fools” and “Think” were the night’s biggest crowd-pleasers, even if their performances were a bit restrained. Franklin’s light burned brightest when reaching back to the blues, and this night’s versions of “I Never Loved A Man”, “I Remember” and “Today I Sing The Blues” left blood on the stage. Mid-tempo and mid-range seem to be her strengths now, and she played to them well during the two-hour concert.

She also displayed an unusual touch when it came to the program. Leaving the stage just short of an hour after she’d appeared, we were expecting the house lights to come up so we could find our way to the bar. Instead, a parade of colorful dancers and musicians made their way through the aisles as a spontaneous Brazilian party suddenly broke out. They challenged the befuddled VIPs in the box seats to shake their gilded tushes, occasionally succeeding, then after about fifteen minutes, filed out down the aisles as Franklin returned to the stage. It was the strangest, and maybe the most fun, intermission I’ve ever witnessed.

There was also a poignancy to the event, with many of the giants of Black American entertainment in attendance, so soon after we’d learned of Michael Jackson’s passing. It was hard not to think of Jackson as she sang her closing number, “The Greatest Love Of All,” a song I’d thought I could never stand to hear again. In Franklin’s hands, and given the emotional tenor of the night, it managed to find resonance even with the cynical old git writing this review, something I’d never have thought possible. Don’t bet against Aretha,