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Live review: Aretha Franklin at the House of Blues

November 23, 2008 |  1:46 pm

Aretha Franklin, the long-reigning Queen of Soul, is a benevolent and generous monarch. On top of every other accolade that's been laid at her feet over the last half-century, a prestigious collective of musicians, writers and music industry heavyweights just placed her at the top of Rolling Stone magazine’s ranking of the 100 greatest singers of all time.

Another singer might have incorporated that bit of news into her introduction. Or she could have humbly basked in the ovation it surely would have generated had she mentioned it Saturday during the second of two nights at the House of Blues in West Hollywood.

Instead, she launched this rare Southland club appearance with a tacit salute to a few of the other estimable voices in pop music, opening with Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher." She subsequently offered up Curtis Mayfield's exquisite "Something He Can Feel" and her signature version of Otis Redding's "Respect" and then saluted rock and funk pioneer Sly Stone with a medley of "I Want to Take You Higher" and "Dance to the Music." But just like so many geopolitical monarchs, whatever she touched became her own.

Scholars and barflies will happily continue to debate whether Franklin is "better" than Elvis, whether Ray Charles should only have finished at No. 2 and why the heck Louis Armstrong didn't even make the list -- it's all academic. By any measure, Franklin, 66, is simply one of the treasures of our age.

The impetus for the club stint was the recent release of her first album of holiday music, and for the occasion she jammed an orchestra of about 15 instrumentalists plus four backup singers onto the tight House of Blues stage for her scintillating 90-minute set.

She dipped into the Christmas collection for the contemporary standard "My Grown-Up Christmas List," which presented a challenge even to the Queen of Soul to overcome its inherently maudlin sentimentality. More on target were an intriguing soul arrangement of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (sung inexplicably over a recorded backing track) and the straight gospel song "One Night With the King."

It created an odd juxtaposition with the secular material and her otherwise lighthearted banter, including some mildly bawdy repartee with fans who packed every square inch of standing room. She also took a moment to thank the sweat-soaked crowd for indulging her refusal to allow air-conditioning during performances because it dries out vocal cords.

The real gift of the night: a couple of old blues songs that highlighted her abilities as a pure blues singer. "Today I Sing the Blues," which she first recorded during her struggling period at Columbia Records before blossoming fully at Atlantic, was textbook existential blues -- Franklin singing about "how fate can be so unfair" and crying-moaning syllables to root out the deepest meaning of that phrase. Then she found release when the band kicked it into a double-time gospel rave-up at the end.

If there was a disappointment in the evening, it was that she played just one song, "So Damn Happy," at the piano. When she's at the keyboard, it's obvious that's where she's most inspired as a musician, and a stretch of several such songs was the high point of her first L.A. show in nearly 15 years in February at the Nokia Theatre.

In "So Damn Happy," she sang of the joy a lover has given her, but upon their parting, she recognizes that it was possible only because she's also known equivalent pain. It was a moment of royal revelation.

Long live the Queen.

--Randy Lewis

Photo: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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