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Story and photos by Andy ArgyrakisAfter abruptly canceling a series of shows last year, Aretha Franklin announced she was taking some time off to nurse an undisclosed illness. Aside from a smattering of public appearances and interviews, "The Queen of Soul" laid low on the concert circuit thus far in 2011, though that all changed with the kickoff to her comeback tour at the sold out Chicago Theatre.
Looking noticeably thinner than she has since probably the 1980s, the diva sounded just as strong as ever and showed no signs of ailment as she plowed through several covers, a handful of hits, some gospel numbers and even material from the new CD A Woman Falling Out Of Love. Though she never explained what was wrong, she thanked the audience for their unceasing support and publicly acknowledged celebrity attendees like Reverend Jesse Jackson and Judge Greg Mathis (who visited her during the recovery).
If her oddly paced but still exceptionally-sounding set indicated, Franklin is indeed in tip-top shape, flexing her vocal muscles with jaw dropping dexterity and reminding those gathered why she'll never be dethroned from her legendary status. Of course, a slew of signature songs played a major part in her longevity and she gave a quick history lesson with golden oldies like "Chain of Fools," "Think," and "Respect" through more recent trendsetters like "Freeway of Love."
Though unfamiliar to most gathered, the new unveilings were undercut by modern day R&B production and the sizzle of a 14 piece backing band. A quartet of background singers also provided plenty of harmonies behind tributes to Jackie Wilson, Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cooke and even relative newcomer Keyshia Cole.
Despite the quality of the performance, there weren't enough songs that made Franklin famous with "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "I Say A Little Prayer," "The House That Jack Built," "Spanish Harlem" and "Rock Steady" amongst the glaring omissions. Between the covers, free-flowing gospel segments (an extended take on "One Night With the King") and even a proclamation from local city officials that it was "Aretha Franklin Day" in Chicago, there was a little too much filler. Even so, the 69-year-old still gave fans enough reasons to rejoice, and with a clean bill of health, Franklin will have plenty of time to fine tune her set list.
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