First Lady Comes Second

(On Saturday I went to see Aretha Franklin play the S.B. Bowl. Here’s my review from the News-Press.)

If the history of Aretha Franklin’s career
is that of a frustrated talent held down under her early Capitol Records deal, and then being allowed to flower under Jerry Wexler’s production at Atlantic Records, then her struggle since the early 1970s has been a story of trying to find another worthy partner and living up to early promise.
There have been plenty of producers since, some very big names, from Curtis Mayfield to Narada Michael Walden and Babyface, but they’ve been either terribly mismatched or have resulted in some stultifyingly dull albums, glomming on to trends from disco to ’80s drum machines and syrupy balladeering.
For the Queen of Soul, there’s been much laurel-resting and Saturday night’s appearance at the Santa Barbara County Bowl suggests she’s content to do just that.
But for fans, it must be frustrating. Franklin tours with a huge band, which opened up the show with that most depressing of Las Vegas-style maneuvers, the “medley of hits,” while the singer prepared offstage.
A medley is, on the whole, an admission that no surprises are to come either tonight or in the years to come, a living museum piece.
But perhaps Franklin’s appearance made up for it. She’s 63 now, and overweight, but still looking lovely in a dazzling white evening dress and purple chiffon scarf.
The singer launched directly into “Respect,” but there was something lifeless about it. And then the dancers came on.

Dancers? Well, when in a Vegas revue. … Three finely toned women with painted-on black slacks shook their moneymakers along with a young man in untucked dress shirt and rakishly angled fedora. They certainly knew their calisthenics, but it was so distracting, they might as well have beamed a large slide show of kitten photographs above the stage for all the attention it afforded the headline artist. Whose idea was this?
Thankfully, they left for a majority of the show, which then struggled to bring Franklin’s voice back to center stage. The first half featured perfunctory renditions of the hits — and what hits they are, some of the finest from Atlantic’s history: “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman),” “Think,” “Chain of Fools.”
The elephantine touring band, which features four backing vocalists, two tambourine players, two percussionists, a 10-piece brass section, three keyboardists, a bass player, a drummer and Franklin’s son Teddy Richards on guitar, added up to bloated, safe arrangements. Franklin appeared more like a singer of somebody else’s songs here, unable to connect to the song’s core emotion, instead of the artist who wrote these powerful anthems. She was much better on the 1974 song that Stevie Wonder wrote for her, “Until You Come Back to Me,” which has “Innervisions” written all over it.
A short intermission happened, and the dancers returned to shimmy to a contemporary R&B track that mentioned “love juice” quite a lot. Ms. Franklin returned, wearing a long, hooded woolen overcoat to keep her warm (it was cold on stage, she let us know, despite the two floor heaters set up for her).
The second half reminded us that Franklin is still recording, and her “So Damn Happy,” on which she accompanied herself on piano, was the best of the night. From her most recent 2003 album of the same name, the self-penned song has nothing going on in the lyrics department. If only she had stayed at the piano longer.
Instead, she reminded us of the varied genres she easily inhabits, from jazz (“Beyond the Sea,” not the most radical choice), to gospel (the rousing “He Never Lost a Fight”), but never staying long enough to really give anything a workout. It was scattershot as her career, and short (at 13 songs, about as long as an album).
However, Franklin was adorable, and returned to the stage after her final song, not for an encore, but to take photos of the entire audience and herself standing in front of us, another one for the family album, we assume.
With the similarly aged Paul McCartney offering up his best album in decades and Neil Diamond about to release a stripped-down, Rick Rubin-produced album in November, it’s possibly time for a major artistic rethink for one of the most powerful voices in pop and soul music.
However, seeing that such plans have led over and over again to mediocre and trend-chasing albums, it’s hard to say whether that advice is sound.
Copyright 2005 News-Press

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