Ringing in the New Year
Story and Photos by Andy ArgyrakisBetween the private parties, public festivities, and various entertainment functions, New Year's Eve is a crazy night to hang out in downtown Chicago. Even on the concert front, the doings are nearly endless, from this year's White Stripes/Flaming Lips double bill at the Aragon Ballroom, to the college rock montage of Guster and Sister Hazel at House of Blues, to the party starting goofiness of the B-52's and Poi Dog Pondering at Navy Pier. Add in some Violent Femmes action at Metro, a Local H spotting at Double Door, plus a series of radio station dance parties, and this musical spread was enough to keep fans going into the wee hours of the morning. For those hoping to avoid packed clubs and riotous rock and roll, the easier listening alternative came courtesy of Aretha Franklin, whose ticket prices may have towered far above these rock shows, but by far ranked as the most musically elegant way to ring in 2004.
Aside from Franklin's flowing gown, formal hairdo, and mounds of accentuating make-up, the Queen of Soul was supported by an all-star band of session men and a full brass section that backed every note she belted with towering radiance. Franklin is no stranger to Chicago stages (already having played Ravinia Festival and U.I.C. Pavilion within the last two years) but this engagement marked the first in support of 2003's "So Damn Happy" release. That Arista project earned brief mention and stage time by the glamorous headliner, but the bulk of her set revolved around several decade defining hits that have thus far stood the test of time. Aretha took the mostly adult oriented crowd back to their youthful days for a parade of hits ranging in style from deep throated soul to sensual R&B to church worthy gospel choruses.
"The House That Jack Built" served as a hearty confirmation that age hasn't slowed this diva down one bit, as Franklin belted out each note with comparable power and might to the day it was recorded. "Try a Little Tenderness" resounded with even more might, earning an extra energy boost from the booming horns that took each bridge break to a level of soulful bliss. Throughout "Freeway of Love" Aretha encouraged the crowd to join in, building up each memorable line with nostalgic recollection and gleeful glory. Such participation paved the way for the congregational tone of "Respect," during which her "sock it to me" punch rang loud enough to reach the farthest suburban depths. Even material from the second half of Franklin's songbook (like "The Only Thing That's Missing Is You" and "So Damn Happy") rang out with gracefulness and vocal dexterity, giving attendees additional points of adoration towards this consummate entertainer.
If there was one major let down to the performance on the whole, it was a length that clocked less than 75 minutes. Considering the night on which the show was staged and the fact that many tickets were priced well over $100, saying the audience was shortchanged is certainly in order. Furthermore, it seemed that just when everyone was getting wound up come 11:15p.m., Aretha promptly shut down shop, leaving little time for countdowns, goodbyes, or encores that could have included dozens of left behind hits, such as "Chain of Fools" and "A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like)." Aside from the time limitations and ignorance travesties, Franklin's overall time in center spotlight at least allowed those gathered to celebrate the year's beginnings with style, class, and charisma.
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