October 7, 2011
Mystic Lake Casino, Prior Lake, MN
In an evening fit for a queen, what comes first is the purse.
As her massive (and partially Minnesotan) backing band assembled themselves on stage, a well-dressed man who was presumably the Queen of Soul's handler scurried out on stage to place a tiger-striped handbag beneath the lip of the concert grand piano at the center of the stage, a sign that Ms. Franklin herself would soon appear.
As the band started in with a medley of her greatest hits, and as a hefty introduction touted her 20 Grammys, her honor of being the first woman inducted into the rock 'n' roll hall of fame, and the fact that she's Rolling Stone's favorite singer of all time, Aretha Franklin paraded to the center of the stage and grabbed the mic just in time to sing the first verse on "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher." And just like that, the room was hers.
Any fears that Franklin's recent illness
would affect the quality of her performance faded away during that first song, with a quartet of back-up singers filling in vocal harmonies but never overpowering the diva's melodic refrains. Franklin is still more than capable of doing the heavy lifting herself, as she proved twice during Carole King's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" -- once during the song itself, and again when she fired the band back up for another run through the chorus so she could drag out each word and show off a little of her vocal acrobatics.
As was to be expected, her set was heavy on hits, and the sold-out room roared with appreciation at the beginning of nearly every song. "Have you guys seen the Blues Brothers?" Franklin smirked at the intro to "Think," following it up by saying she would take us "back to the Atlantic Records days" for the ballad "Baby I Love You." But her attitude was the fiercest on a pair of mid-set ballads, Keyshia Cole's "I Remember" and the damning "Don't Play That Song" with the blistering chorus of "He lied, he lied, he lied to me." After that song was through, Franklin paraded off stage in a huff, leaving the band to noodle for nearly 10 minutes.
Dressed in a gauzy white bedazzled robe and silver slingback heels, Franklin seemed a little uncomfortable in her getup at times, teetering precariously around the stage as if fearful that her drapey gown would get caught on her seemingly too-big shoes. So when she left the stage, it seemed like she might reappear in a new outfit -- but lo and behold, she returned in the same configuration, though looking recharged from the break. Whatever she did backstage in those 10 minutes helped to give her the energy to push through the rest of the set and make it the strongest part of her performance. She quickly got her forgettable new single, "So Damn Happy," out of the way ("It's available exclusively at Wal-Mart"), she told a sweet story about James Moody showing up at one of her shows and performing with her before he passed away. "He was 85 years old, and he wore me out!" she exclaimed. Her rendition of "Moody's Mood for Love" was a tremendous tribute to the jazz legend, and showcased her well-oiled scatting abilities.
It was the next song, a cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," that was the real surprise of the night, as Franklin moved over to the grand piano and effortlessly started improvising over the chords of the song. It was at this point that it was clear just how long Franklin has been performing and just how innate performing has become for her, and you could see her band (including a new conductor that looked completely panic-stricken at times) scrambling to keep up with her shifts in time signatures and mood. She stretched "Troubled Water" into a 10-plus minute extended gospel jam, her backup singers reaching their hands to the sky as she took her voice higher and higher and ended with a triumphant "Hallelujah!"
Franklin could have played anything she wanted after that, but she stood back up and stuck to the hits -- another ballad, "One Night With the King," followed by "Freeway of Love," "Chain of Fools," and an encore of "Respect" that had the whole auditorium on its feet. She came back out one last time to repeat the chorus on "Respect" and sing part of an old spiritual before leaving the stage again -- but it wasn't until her handler trotted across the stage to retrieve her purse that we knew the show was really through.
Personal bias: Aretha's a legend. Enough said.
The crowd: Dressed for a night on the town.
Random notebook dump: At least two of Franklin's horn players were Minnesotans: Both trumpeter Dave Jensen and saxophonist Kathy Jensen of the Twin Cities-based Hornheads were playing in the backing band.
(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman
Baby I Love You
I Remember (Keyshia Cole)
Don't Play That Song
So Damn Happy
Moody's Mood For Love (James Moody)
Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel)
One Night With the King
Freeway of Love