Aretha Franklin came up singing gospel before becoming a pop star, but that doesn’t mean she ever really left church. Thursday night found her onstage at Durham Performing Arts Center, which felt like it should have been outfitted with pews by the end of her two-hour sermon … er, performance.
This was the second Triangle show Franklin has played since 2005, out of seven bookings. But all the cancellations and postponements were pretty much forgiven from the moment she took the stage, making an entrance fit for a queen. After a few minutes of instrumental vamping from the 20 or so members of the accurately named Aretha Franklin Orchestra, her master of ceremonies preceded the Queen of Soul’s imminent arrival with the sort of introduction you hear for champion boxers.
“She holds 19 Grammys; the first female vocalist in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Rolling Stone magazine proclaimed her the greatest singer of all time ... Ladies and gentlemen ...
And out she strode in a gold-sequined dress, dropping her fur coat to a standing ovation from the audience. Franklin never directly mentioned her most recent no-show back in January, but the first song was “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” – and yeah, we were.
Franklin recently turned 74, an age when you’d expect a voice like hers to be at least half-gone. Not even. True, the quartet of backup singers (featuring her cousin, Brenda Corbett) were on prominent display and handled a lot of the routine passages to save the star’s voice for when it counted. But Franklin can still let loose and induce waves of ecstasy, building you up before dropping you way, way down.
She also displayed abundant sass throughout, putting a hand on her hip and shimmying during “Baby, I Love You” and teasing the crowd when familiar riffs came up by asking, “Sound familiar?” Still, the set list went deeper than Franklin’s last DPAC show in 2012, including “Share Your Love With Me” and a couple of straight-up church-revival numbers from her 1972 gospel landmark “Amazing Grace.”
Really, though, everything was about the spirit. Franklin was flat-out testifying by the end of “Ain’t No Way” (which inspired the woman seated next to me to howl, “Diva! Diva!”). And “Chain of Fools” felt like we were at a tent sermon.
Franklin took a mid-set break that did not appear to have been planned, a somewhat awkward quarter-hour that the band passed by having almost everyone play a solo (including the bassist). Franklin appeared right after the drum solo, announcing that she’d bitten down on something and lost a tooth. Another break happened when Ken Weiss from UNC-Chapel Hill’s music department appeared onstage to present Franklin with one of the university’s Artistic Achievement Proclamations.
Then it truly was time for church with “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the one song where Franklin sat at the piano and played herself. She flat out caught the fever with an extended and very churchy call-and-response outro in which she recounted a medical scare and a miracle cure. No wonder even “Freeway of Love” turned into “Hallelujah!” by the end.
Of course, the show closed with the obligatory “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (accompanied by a ballet dancer) and “Respect,” at which point she was still nailing everything and projecting all the way to the back wall. She literally danced offstage at the end.
A natural woman, indeed.