House of Blues
Dec. 2, 2000
Story and Photos by Tony BonyataThere are divas, and then there is Aretha. With her soulful, buttery pipes still fully intact at 58, she proves no need for the elaborate costume and stage frou-frou that is needed by her contemporaries . With a larger than life physical appearance, Aretha Franklin walked out to a hungry crowd of moneyed men and cliques of gabby women packed into the funky, voodoo-vibed House of Blues last Saturday evening. With her long brown hair pulled cleanly back, wearing a large creamy silk gown and more sparkly glitter on her face than a Christopher Radko ornament, Aretha appeared to be ready to lead a Sunday gospel choir into a Christmas Eve service. But instead the undisputed Queen of Soul fronted a wonderfully rich orchestra, augmented by a ten-piece horn section and five-person choir, that swung full-force on uptempo R&B numbers, yet had the restraint to pull back when needed for soulful ballads.
With no tour in sight, her two sold-out performances in Chicago seemed almost unexplainable, other than the fact that her purported twenty million dollar worth wasn't quite enough to go Christmas shopping down Michigan Avenue while in town. But whatever the reasons, it didn't matter to her faithful congregation, who flew in from as far as Paris to catch these two rare performances.
Unlike other divas, where costume changes and set designs take center stage over the music, Aretha's presence was relaxed yet refreshingly uplifting, as she let her rich vocals do the work of what it takes a dozen designers to do for the Chers and Bettes of the world. Her voice was in top form as she sumptuously belted out heartfelt ballads and roof-raising, gospel-infused soul numbers with a controlled gracefulness that preached nothing but the truth.
With a proud, commanding stance reminiscent of gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, Franklin and orchestra made this small hall with it's colorful kitschy, folk-art laced walls seem like a visit to a southern baptist church on acid.
But as freaky as the surroundings, Aretha never let her music stray, which, unfortunately, also turned out to be the downfall of her performance. While she pulled out a few older gems, such as the swinging "Chain of Fools," the powerful, gospel-soaked "Let Your Love Light Shine on Me" and a sweet, stirring rendition of " A Song For You," which featured Aretha performing alone on a piano, she never hit on her key material. Performing an out-of-place, rap-meets-soul take on the Baha Men's "Who Let The Dogs Out" and oddly timed "Auld Lang Syne" [did we miss Christmas?], it seemed these would have been better left in Aretha's shower repertoire. While some of her newer material, such as "A Rose is Still a Rose," with punchy horns and sassy background vocals, along with a raucous take on her 1972 hit "Daydreaming" held up on their own, the glaring omissions of her famous standards such as "Respect," "Think" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" sent the crowd home feeling, rightfully, shorted. And considering that the show only lasted under an hour-and-a-half, with no encore, the ticket cost of $75 a pop was all the more painful. Hopefully, next time around Aretha will pick a set-list that will show her audience a little more R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
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