Aretha Franklin Revels In Gospel Roots at Radio City Music Hall: Concert Review

Paul Familetti
This hit-and-miss affair didn't always showcase the legendary singer at her best.

The Queen of Soul demonstrates that she's still got her vocal chops during a 90-minute set.

At this point in her career, Aretha Franklin can pretty much do whatever she wants to do in concert. And that’s exactly what she did at Radio City Music Hall Saturday night, the first of two make-up dates for her canceled appearances earlier this year. Performing a 90-minute set that included only about an hour of actual singing, the legendary performer alternately thrilled and frustrated the crowd that treated her with — what else? — respect.

Looking and sounding more sprightly than she has in recent years -- she giddily danced onto the stage, albeit losing a high-heeled shoe in the process -- the 72-year-old singer displayed admirable vocal prowess in both her upper and lower registers, although she cannily let her back-up singers handle much of the heavy lifting. That didn’t stop her from adding extended gospel-style flourishes to many of her songs, her voice thrillingly gliding and swooping with jazzy dexterity.

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Unfortunately, her vocals were often buried in a muddied mix that might be explained by her admission that she had failed to show up for an afternoon sound check. Her frustration was apparent when she sat down at the grand piano to perform “I Will Always Love You” as a tribute to Whitney Houston, which took forever to get started as she barked instructions to the engineers.

The pacing of the show was somewhat spotty as well, with her band and a group of energetic dancers performing an extended version of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” when she left the stage midway through the evening for a costume change. They similarly vamped during an endless delay before an encore of her classic hit “Respect” (“Took a little while, but I’m back,” she exclaimed when she finally reappeared). Much time was wasted in the form of introductions of various friends in the audience, several of whom turned out not to be in attendance (“Rev. Al, where are you?” she asked plaintively, presumably referring to Al Sharpton) and a lengthy dog joke that demonstrated comedy is not her forte.

She excelled in such numbers as “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me (Higher and Higher),” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and her late sister Carolyn’s “Angel.” Eschewing most of her familiar hits — there was no “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “Freeway of Love,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” -- she instead performed such relatively lesser known numbers as “Hooked on Your Love” and “Something He Can Feel,” both from the Sparkle soundtrack.

She also reveled in her gospel roots in such numbers as a rousing “It’s About Time for a Miracle” and “Amazing Grace,” the latter delivered in the form of a haunting incantation.

 It was hardly a classic Aretha performance, but any opportunity to see the Queen of Soul, in however spotty form, is not to be missed.

Set List

(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher
I Say a Little Prayer
Hooked on Your Love
Jump to It
I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)
Something He Can Feel
I Will Always Love You
Amazing Grace
It’s About Time for a Miracle

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