Paying respect to the Queen of Soul

by Ryan Snyder

She sang at Obama’s inauguration. She sang at King Curtis’sfuneral. She even sang at Wrestlemaniain its golden years, but after a lengthy wait and serial cancellations, ArethaFranklin finally came back to sing for North Carolina. In an evening in whichthe splendid moments outweighed both the perfunctory and the awkward, the Queenof Soul showed a sold-out crowd at the Durham Performing Arts Center lastThursday why she still holds claim to the greatest voice in rock and soul.

Fitting to the title, queens should roll with a heftyentourage. The 20-member backing orchestra that would pale The Funk Brothers bycomparison would qualify as just that. A nine-piece horn section, a six-manrhythm and melodic band, four back-up singers, and a conductor to bend them allto the will of Aretha’s titanic voice followed her every step of the way, evenwhen she was nowhere in sight.

Her band began the night with light instrumental calisthenicsthat quoted her hits “Chain of Fools” and “Think” has her conductor H.B. Barnumtwo-stepped in between cues. Soon, a nattily dressed man that was presumed tobe her manager walked out with her purse in hand. Aretha lore says that thisevent always heralds the start of the show, though the more apocryphal rumorsstate that that’s no ordinary purse. It’s actually purported to be Aretha’sperformance fee, in cash and completely accounted for, placed right by her sidewhere she can keep her eye on it. Her legendary fussiness aside, it makes sensefor the conduit of so many feminist war cries to keep such a watchful eye onher stacks.

Aretha checked her pipes with a pretty, if cursorytake on a familiar cover, Jackie Wilson’s time-tested anthem, “(Your Love KeepsLifting Me) Higher and Higher,” her sleeveless arm wagging upward with thesong’s uplifting hook. With nearly a month and a half since her lastperformance, her voice was clear and strong, given a spectral corona by theharmonies of her backup vocalists.

It’s the little touches that she lends songsthat give them personality beyond what he voice or the band can provide. Sheoffered one of her biggest hits early on, “(You Make Me Feel) Like a NaturalWoman,” shimmying to its sensual chorus as best as her 69-year old body wouldallow her. Aretha popped herself on the behind as she sang the hook to“Something He Can Feel.” She provided narration to “I Wanna Make It Up to You,”her 1982 collaboration with The Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs. “And then Levi wouldsay…,” Aretha noted has her voice deepened for the line “I woulda loved you inthe night” to match his silky baritone.

Though she might still be blessed with thevoice of God, stamina has not followed Aretha into her twilight years. It wasonly a half an hour after taking the stage that she departed for anintermission, leaving her band to fill part of the break with an awesomelyfunky instrumental. The other time was spent rather dubiously. Durham mayorBill Bell presented her with the key to the city, because of course she hadonly kept the city dangling for two years. Aretha looked only mildly touched,but remarkably more so than from whatever trinket the Durham alumna chapter ofDelta Sigma Theta bestowed upon her. That she is only an honorary member of thefor-profit sorority rather than a pledged sister could have offered someinsight into her completely impassive body language.

She decided to come back not with another song, but rather withjokes. Her delivery could use a little work, however. The crowd, not yet wisethat they were about to become victim to her witty repartee, was asked, “Haveyou heard about Muhammad Ali?” Naturally, one would think she was about todeliver some grave news, rather than a punch line. Rest assured, her flirtationwith comedy has in no way endangered her day job.

The hit-filled second half featured an Aretha Franklin whowas noticeably weaker vocally, as for the first time all evening, her voicestruggled to rise above the behemoth playing behind her. Her backup singersstepped it up for a driving read of “Freeway of Love,” and her grand finish of“R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” was abated somewhat by a spoken verse and waning voice. Shemade it though, however, took a curtain call to soak in the adulating crowd,and carried her purse off behind the curtain with her. That was about all therespect she was looking for it seemed.