Hard Rock Live, Hollywood
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
What doesn't become a legend the most? Well, for starters, a certain behavior pattern that leads the public to wonder if an artist has dived face-first off a 12-story balcony without considering a safety net. Or acting like a spoiled diva by adopting a code of conduct that causes fans to lose all respect. Or, in Aretha Franklin's case, spell it simply a lack of "R.E.S.P.E.C.T." Rumors that she's in dire need of an attitude adjustment -- given recent reports about her fussiness behind the scenes at the Obama inauguration, during rehearsals for the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame anniversary celebration, and at last year's Grammys, where she managed to diss both Beyonce and Tina Turner in a single swipe -- have threatened to sully Aretha's reputation. None of it's helped by her long absence from the charts and increasing competition from a younger generation of singers that could ultimately usurp the Queen of Soul's continued reign.
Then there's this note from the style-setters. Never mind that her fashion foibles may have finally caught up with her. It appeared that if Aretha's handlers ever had any hope of reigning in her sartorial excess, they've apparently long since abandoned that now.
Consequently, it's with some degree of uncertainty that we find Lady Soul back on the boards and ready to reclaim her reputation. For her first show in South Florida in recent memory, she might have given cause to think that a comeback of sorts was in the making and that the Aretha of old was ready to make amends.
Certainly, she started off strong enough, resplendent for once in a
sparkling red gown and hair bound in girlish blond curls, a powerful
presence to affirm her radiant star stature. Backed by a tight 20-piece
orchestra under the direction of longtime conductor H.B. Barnum --
including a ten-man horn section, four back-up singers, three keyboards,
three percussionists, drums, bass and her son Teddy on guitar -- the
onstage ensemble resembled a Vegas show band geared up for a gospel
Still, there were worrisome implications even at the outset. She was
25 minutes late in taking the stage, suggesting her diva disposition was
still evident. The house was only half filled, and while the audience
was well heeled and genteel, it appeared to exclude anyone under the age
of forty. She initially kept her comments to a minimum, launching the
set with a polished though perfunctory read of a common cover choice,
Jackie Wilson's well-worn chestnut, "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher
and Higher." Tapping one of her biggest hits early on, "(You Make Me
Feel) Like a Natural Woman," one got the sense that Aretha was rushing
things along. A take on Curtis Mayfield, a brush with the blues and
another pair of her standards -- "Baby, I Love You" and "Chain of Fools"
-- followed, and then, a mere half hour after making her entrance, she
announced an intermission and retreated offstage, leaving her band to
fill in the break with a ten minute instrumental.
Unfortunately, she returned with little fanfare. Instead of getting
back into the set list, she indulged in some personal repartee with
friends in the audience, introducing the folks she had mingled with
backstage -- among them, comedian Dick Gregory, singer Deborah Cox, and
the publisher of a trade publication she exalted as if it was the Bible.
And she didn't stop there. She acknowledged a neighbor who had driven
all the way from Detroit and another friend whose common bond appeared
to be that they shared Aretha's admiration for McDonald's. Really? If
she was bucking for a spokesperson gig with Mickey D's, she clearly made
her point, however unintentionally. Heftier than ever and clearly
straining to move about the stage, it could be construed that she's
over-indulged in the product already. Then again, she plugged White
Castle at the Obama inaugural.
More commentary followed, mostly focused on her recent visit to
Atlantic City where she chanced to catch a performance by R&B
sensation Maxwell, with whom she was clearly enamored. Commenting on the
barrage of undergarments that had been hurled at the stage, she
mentioned that the woman sitting next to her couldn't comply. "I would
consider throwing mine up there, but I ain't wearing none," she quoted
her companion as saying. "I lost them in a poker game."
At least those reflections offered some attempt at spontaneity, in
contrast to the tightly structured pace and minimal audience interplay
that marked the first half of the show. Another hit, "Think," elevated
the energy, as did a powerful rendition of the big ballad "One Night
With the King," which had the back-up singers testifying as if they were
giving grace. When they launched into a tumultuous version of
"Respect," one began to suspect that the concert was reaching a
crescendo. Surprising though, it had reached a conclusion instead. Only
an hour after she had first stepped foot on the stage, she announced,
somewhat suspiciously that "They want us to be off by 9:30."
were indeed the case, it would certainly be setting a precedent, one
that would make it the shortest show in Hard Rock history. Dubious as it
appeared, sure enough, Aretha wrapped up "Respect," took a bow and
departed. When she returned, it wasn't for an encore but merely to bask
in the crowd's adulation one final time before an assistant draped an
overcoat over her shoulders and ushered her offstage.
The time strictly devoted to singing, excluding her intermission and
observations, amounted to roughly 45 minutes at most, Hence, the Queen
of Soul's reign was surprisingly short. Yes, Aretha's still a superb,
and 45 years on, her voice remains remarkably fluid, no worse for wear.
However, this royal rule seemed to end in a premature demise.
Personal Bias: Later songs such as "Freeway of Love," "Jimmy
Lee," And especially "Until You Come Back To Me (That's What I'm Gonna
Do)" were sadly missed. And who remembers that Aretha gave an
emotionally charged rendition of Les Miz showstopper, "I Dreamed a
Dream," 15 years prior to Susan Boyle?
Random Detail: Aretha's not as sexy as Celine, not a babe like
Beyonce and certainly not as enticing as Tina Turner. But when she puts
her all into a tune, it's her throne to own.
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By The Way: A live album is overdue, her last great bid for a
concert collection being her Fillmore West set in 1969. But considering
the brevity of her performance, it would barely fill a single CD.