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Live review: Aretha Franklin at the Hollywood Bowl

June 27, 2009 |  3:27 pm
ARETHA_HB_ Everyone knows that Aretha Franklin supports President Barack Obama. Her appearance at his January inauguration, singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” in a gray wool cloche with a spectacular bow, connected the celebrated singer’s work in the civil rights movement with the election of America’s first black president. 

Franklin reiterated her admiration for Mr. Obama during Friday night's concert at the Hollywood Bowl -- even trotting out a sequined version of "The Hat" for her finale -- and added another shade to it, one that was typically insightful about the needs of a woman’s body and soul.

She altered the words to the show tune “As If We Never Said Goodbye” (an Obama favorite) to pay tribute to the world leader, singing, “Barack, you’re teaching some of the world a new way to dream.” Then, jokingly engaging in a bit of heavy breathing, she said, “Brother is fine. But he is married. I understand that ... and bound to marriage vows.” 

Franklin comically imagined an encounter with the “gorgeous” Michelle Obama, in which she offered her love and respect to the first lady, but ended with “Where’s Barack?”

In a night that had perfunctory moments and glorious ones, filled with soul hits, kitchen-table blues, rousing gospel and earthy shtick, Franklin’s words for Obama emanated love and understanding. This was the Aretha the world treasures. She is still able to uplift the spirit of everyone in an amphitheater with a sublime vocal run, but she’s equally interested in expressing human-scale desires and foibles.

This was Franklin’s first Hollywood Bowl concert in 35 years, and Franklin made sure to please fans who’ve been with her all the way with plenty of oldies (a bravura “I Never Loved a Man,” a less-than-strong “Chain of Fools”), torchy turns, church blessings and self-deprecating jokes. 

“Did I dare to wear my tightest gown tonight?” she said, showing off the second of two outfits, a figure-hugging black sequined fishtail gown highlighted by a white fur coat. (The first ensemble was yellow, with a train, appliquéd flowers and fur cuffs.) “Can I get an ‘Amen’?" Can I get a ‘Boom Chakalaka Boom'?"
Franklin’s humor and warmth made the show feel intimate, despite its sometimes distracting glitz. Midset, a Brazilian-style dance troupe took over (presumably to allow for that costume change); what samba has to do with Ms. Franklin’s music isn’t clear, but audience members gamely engaged with the befeathered showgirls scattered among them.

Everyone was there for one reason, though: to hear Franklin sing. Her voice is one of pop’s wonders, and though it’s no longer the astonishing instrument it was in yer youth, it is still worthy of veneration. 

Barn-stormers such as “Respect” gave Franklin some trouble. She just can’t punch out those phrases as she could in her prime. At times, her voice was subsumed by the huge wave of music generated by the full band, orchestra and legion of back-up singers behind her. 

Franklin’s longtime musical director, H.B. Barnum, ably kept the troops in line and jumping, and a few players stood out, notably Franklin’s son, Teddy Richards White, on guitar. The most exciting instrumental sound, however, was Franklin’s own piano playing, featured on a swinging new song, “I Adore You,” which she said would be on an album to be released in September.

Franklin relied on the 40-plus musicians onstage with her, not to mention those dancers and a full choir that emerged for a song near the end; their busy presence frequently gave her room to step back and breathe. She recovered by returning to the vernacular forms that underpin her great pop hits. Today I Sing The Blues,” which she first released in 1961, was even richer now, after 40-plus years. Taking the song from smoky blues to pleading gospel, Franklin inspired many audience members to raise their hands in blessing.

Further sanctification occurred with “Old Landmark,” a gospel shouter that allowed Franklin to show her full powers of spirit-touched improvisation. She connected the song to the civil rights movement by preceding it with a shout-out to Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of several prominent African Americans in her audience. (Others included Billy Dee Williams, Angela Bassett and Halle Berry, who actually came onstage during the encore and knelt at Franklin’s feet.)

Of her most familiar songs, “Ain’t No Way” was the most powerful. As her cousin Brenda White-King sang its eerie high background notes, Franklin expertly phrased this saddest of romantic laments. The burnt-sugar tone of her voice exquisitely suited the mood of this classic.

Melancholy wasn’t a mood that much interested Franklin Friday night, however. She did pause to acknowledge the recent death of Michael Jackson, calling him a “musical genius” who was “very kind and sensitive” before asking for a moment of silence.

“Thank you, Michael, for every moment, for every kind thing you did,” she said, adding that “he moved on up, just a little bit higher now.”

That somber moment was one of few in a show that stressed the joy of community, from the big band onstage to Franklin’s famous friends in the front rows, and including the line of activists that connects Franklin’s late champion, Martin Luther King, with President Obama. 

Ending with “The Greatest Love of All,” a song made famous by her god-daughter, Whitney Houston, Franklin embraced the role of soul’s matriarch. But, as her jokes and her singing showed, this is one mama who still has a little kick.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times