I saw Aretha Franklin last night from the Chicago Theater’s nosebleed seats, unable to make out her features but sure from the moment she first raised her voice that she’s a national if not global treasure, as compelling at 75 — her birthday was March 25 — as half a century ago, in her breakthrough year 1967.
Skinnier than she looked singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Lions-Viking game last year, wearing an above-the-knees, sleeveless, collarless dress of gauzy white, in a wig that fell like Michelle Obama’s real hair, on gold heels she finally kicked off at the end of her two-hour concert, Aretha revisited several of her earthy, worldly, gospel-drawn and jazzy hits from then — “Baby I Love You,” “Chain of Fools” “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man” and “Respect” (her encore), from her breakout albums I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) and Lady Soul.
Chatting with full confidence and ease onstage, lifting an arm occasionally in triumph or solidarity and two-stepping playfully, she also sang her luscious “Day Dreaming” from 1972 (“This song was about a tall, tempting Temptation,” she confided to the 3600 listeners in attendance), Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” (which she recorded in 1963, before her recognition as Queen specifically of soul), later tidbits including “Freeway of Love,” a 12-bar blues asserting the sweetness of someone age 16, and a visit to church on “Precious Memories,” during which she soared freely over her guest artists the
Ok — but how did she sing? Divinely. Sometimes like Sarah Vaughan, moving vowels through pitch intervals like an Escher staircase shifting dimensions of up and down, in and out, pure and fine-grained. Often like a great trumpeter or saxophonist — Louis Armstrong, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Lester Young — unleashing a beautiful silvery flash of tonality that captures all the rest of what’s going on in something akin to a sun flare. Always with firm rhythmic command, able to float her phrases, though they seemingly have body and weight, in unpredictable skeins through, above and around five backup singers and an orchestra of 15 (including three keyboardists, two percussionists, a woman drummer and woman in the horn section), asserting her passion in measures stretched to hold them, never losing the beat, arriving where and when she intended.
The performance was well-paced, starting with a warmup man, an orchestral overture of some themes she didn’t sing (“Jump To It” was one I knew),her first moment onstage in a fur she shed almost instantly, then songs pouring forth in varying beats and attention to dynamics. “Skylark” was especially remarkable to me — not a song crowds demand of her, but clearly among her personal favorites, a melody she served up as a sumptuous marvel, like molasses flavored birdsong.
How I go on! Aretha had a picture projected on a screen dangling over the musicians of herself with Barack Obama (to cheers, of course), ran a brief clip from (but didn’t stop singing during) the 1974 film Claudine (starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones with music by Gladys Knight and the Pips, produced by Curtis Mayfield), and gave a shout out to the Reverend Jesse Jackson (“He’s still doing it!” she exulted of his political activism) and his son Jesse Jr. (“It’s nice to see him out,” Aretha intoned dryly about the ex-Congressman on supervised release after imprisonment for fraud and campaign malfeasance charges).
She spoke of loving Chicago, recalling favorite soul food restaurants. She cuddled up for a chorus or two in an overstuffed armchair centerstage, losing no vocal power, precision or place in her story. She seemed to be having fun — an attitude I don’t recall from the last time I saw her perform in Chicago, at the Park West in 1985 (broadcast as a Soundstage special, available on video). Her audience, from my vantage, appeared to be largely but not exclusively middle-aged and white, and universally thrilled to have been amid the crowd in her presence. I think of women singers who’ve represented (and challenged) their cultures by dint of indomitable voices and personas — Uum Kulthum, Celia Cruz, Edith Piaf, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Barbra Streisand. That’s an old school list? Ok, add your Queen Bey. There is no dethroning Aretha Franklin.