Aretha Franklin at the Minnesota State Fair, 8/22/14


Aretha Franklin and the Four Tops
Minnesota State Fair Grandstand, Saint Paul
Friday, August 22, 2014

A sharp, piercing sun was setting as the Grandstand was beginning to fill up Friday night. The grandiose revelry that is the Minnesota State Fair was kicking off its first weekend in true style. As if it were tailored especially for this one beautiful evening, the Fair outdid itself welcoming the Four Tops and the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin, to the stage for what turned out to be, for many reasons, an unforgettable night.

A man in a "#YOLO" T-shirt who likely been pounding Beergaritas since noon was quickly getting ejected from our section, and the State Fair Gopher was launching T-shirts into the crowd with a gigantic slingshot as the Four Tops began to take the stage.

Set up like a soul revue of sorts, the production and big band musical accompaniment revved the evening up with a jamming instrumental version of "Are You Man Enough?" It allowed time for only living original Tops member Abdul "Duke" Fakir and his young recruits to strut themselves out at the four microphones center stage.

The Tops' glorious full vocal sound brought the audience on their feet with the Motown staple "Baby, I Need Your Loving." As vintage photos of himself with former members rolled past, Fakir paid tribute, "Through eternity, there will always be the Four Tops."

In shiny red satin jackets with big, black shirt collars, the Four Tops reimagined the group's stellar steps and dance moves. Synchronized jazz hands and twirls had the Tops dancing with their microphone stands and harmonizing, inspiring sweethearts in the crowd to embrace, singing to one another for "Same Old Song" and "Shake Me, Wake Me(When It's Over)."


After some gentle ribbing among the current members of the group, the Tops took to their stools and switched things up to a '70s vibe slow groove for the more sweet, soulful harmonies of "(It's the Way) Nature Planned It" and eventually "Ain't No Woman Like the One I've Got" that had the audience swooning, taking in the gorgeous summer breeze and finding their own groove.
The falsettos amongst the crowd fantastically drowned out the Four Tops on stage for the massive medley and climax of hits. On their feet and moving and grooving, the audience were wrapped up in soul dance mania with "I'll Be There", "Standing in the Shadows of Love" and "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)."

Strutting back off stage Fakir thanked the audience, "God bless you all. The Queen is on her way!!" After a long intermission, the stage went dim.

Some hip hop beats came on the sound system and the massive band on stage, which included a 10-piece horn section, were finding their spots. The band director took his spot not before the beats progressed and a rapper in a Twins jersey—who turned out to be Aretha's son Kecalf Cunningham—came out on stage.

Mashing up some classic '70s funk tracks, the gentleman asked if everyone was "ready for the real thing!?" and quickly went into a rap song of his own and hyped his newly released CD. As Aretha's photo came up on the screen Kecalf exited the stage and wished everyone a good night.

A tympani drum roll was helping to build anticipation only to fade for a moment for what ended up being another delay. As it seemed something wasn't quite right everyone was clapping and cheering for Ms. Franklin to come out on stage. The conductor took over and eventually cued the band into an instrumental medley of classic Aretha Franklin.

Transitioning into a familiar melody the spotlight showed Aretha the way to the stage, and everyone was on their feet to welcome the Queen of Soul herself. Chiming in for a raucous "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," Aretha set the gospel tone for what would be a tremendous evening of her vocal dynamics and astounding range.

Decked out in blonde hair and a modest, flowing, white-sparkly dress, Aretha warmed her voice up as she lifted each turn of the chorus up—higher and higher indeed. Breaking things up she would alternate with a scat vocal style that further displayed the 72-year-old Franklin's soul influence. "You came to have it and we brought it," Aretha said, charming the appreciative crowd.
She spoke fondly of another soul legend, Stevie Wonder, while introducing the landmark "Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)." Like the roller coasters in the distance of the Grandstand, Aretha worked the vocals all around, twisting the sorrowful melody about, into the most exhilarating highs and lows only the Queen can deliver.

Playing with the microphone and singing all over the place, she hit every gorgeous high note she could. Aretha pranced about and knocked out a succession of vintage soul including the sweet "Angel," B.B. King's "Sweet Sixteen," and ultimately "Think," having everyone in the crowd screaming "Freedom!" at the top their lungs. A grinding and raw "Chain of Fools" would play out allowing Aretha to head backstage for a well-earned break from the show.

After much jamming from the band, some vamping to Pharrell's "Happy" allowed for Aretha to finish off the track. It was definitely a treat to hear Franklin singing something contemporary, making each chorus she sang all her own. It wasn't before Aretha told a long and strange joke about a dog that she broke things down, "Taking everyone to church" with a long series of gospel verses that allowed her to tell the story of recent health battles, declaring herself the victor. The audience bawled in appreciation and the spirit truly rose for the second half of the show.

Things got out of hand as Aretha brought out her signature '80s jam, "Freeway of Love." Stripping the track of the original's synthesized veneer the band super-charged the song. Franklin's singing seemed to literally set off the fireworks behind the Grandstand stage. Completely planned or unplanned, the effect pushed Aretha and audience together to whole other levels.

Returning for an encore for the inevitable "Respect" with everyone on their feet and reaching a fever pitch of release. Everyone sang along. Leaving the audience out of breath, Aretha thanked the crowd.

Perhaps overwhelmed she exited and re-entered the stage a couple times but managed to plug her son's CDs one last time and wrapped the show with an unlikely, elongated version of Ehtel Merman' s "No Business Like Show Business" and an emotionally soulful take on Barbara Streisand's "The Way We Were."

Critic's Bias:
There's not a greater singer in the world of soul than Aretha Franklin. It was a huge pleasure to finally see her. I love the State Fair, and to see someone like her on that stage on such a gorgeous night, it was one of those really unforgettable things.

The Crowd:
A real solid mix of Minnesota State Fair goers.

Overheard in the Crowd: "That was one weird ass show!"

(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me)Higher and Higher
Until You Come Back to Me(That's What I'm Gonna Do)
Sweet Sixteen
Chain of Fools
Old Landmark
I Remember
Sweet Bitter Love
Freeway of Love
There's No Business Like Show Business
The Way We Were