DURHAM — Well, the fifth time was the charm. After standing the Triangle up four times on concert dates since 2005, Aretha Franklin finally showed up, holding forth Thursday night at the Durham Performing Arts Center. And the fact that she was actually good made for a nice bonus.
Franklin brought along lots of backup firepower, of course, a score or so of musicians billed as the Aretha Franklin Orchestra. She made exactly the sort of entrance you'd expect of a diva of her stature, striding onstage in a white fur coat to a breathless introduction: "Your queen, my queen, THE QUEEN of Soul - Aaaaaaaaaaretha FRANKLIN!"
It was an unusual concert, to say the least. Not many shows feature the mayor coming out halfway through to hand over the key to the city, as Bill Bell did Thursday night.
"You don't need a key. We built this house for you," Bell said with a gesture taking in DPAC's plush environs. "So you got to come back."
Whether she will or not, Franklin made her mark Thursday night, credibly pulling off everything from En Vogue covers to a bit of standup comedy. Franklin will turn 70 next month, and she has undeniably lost a step or two over the years. But reports of her voice's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Besides, Franklin at three-quarters capacity is still better than just about anyone else out there.
Although Franklin never directly addressed her multiple no-shows, she did offer up a song selected for atonement purposes, "I Wanna Make It Up to You."
Her gospel roots were never far away, with many songs - starting with "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," which came up second in the 90-minute set - going to church on the outro. And when she really reached down and wailed, she still made you feel it. "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)" just about melted the house down, and "Chain of Fools" wasn't far behind.
Best of all was "Bridge Over Troubled Water," the one song where Franklin sat at the piano to play as well as sing. She started out somewhere between church and honkytonk before quickly taking a turn for the verse into a full-on gospel rave up, complete with call, response and "Hallelujah!" to the heavens. Even her band was applauding by the end.
The show closed with "Respect," Franklin's longtime signature, and she took her bows as the band vamped on. "See you next time," she said.
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