Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Aretha Franklin at Coney Island Last Night

At this point in her career, Aretha Franklin is entitled to do whatever she wants, including playing an outdoor show at Coney Island as she did last night. The good news is that she seems to be ok – with all sorts of ghoulish rumors of ill health circulating the web, it was heartwarming to see her looking robust, able to strike a triumphant pose or ten and move across the stage under her own power. It was also good to see her take a turn at the piano. While she didn’t challenge herself, sticking to a basic, gospel-flavored chordal approach, she still has the chops to do it, and that’s good news too. Especially for the roughly 95% of the crowd who were taking advantage of a literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see her perform.

Like Tom Waits, it’s been decades since Franklin toured regularly – and clearly, she has no need to. The vaults are packed with hours and hours of transcendent footage from her peak in the 60s and early 70s. And as far back as the 80s, when a big-ticket show would top out at around $25, she was doing the occasional Radio City or Lincoln Center gig for twice that. Coney Island being one of New York’s most impoverished neighborhoods, the likelihood that more than a handful of oldtimers at the show had seen her before was pretty slim. Franklin rewarded them by bringing along a full band and orchestra, who played competently behind her. Aside from a garish funkmetal guitar solo during the introductory instrumental hit medley, and a few occasions where the sound engineer inexplicably brought up the bass, they stayed in the background, even when grinding through one of the interminable vamps that would dominate much of the show.

Franklin is very bright, and what became most obvious early on is that she was pacing herself. Deliberately and methodically, she chose her spots, and when she’d launch into a long, bluesy series of melismas, the crowd loved it. As perhaps can be expected of a performer who had to cancel a couple of scheduled concerts here last year for health reasons, the distance between those carefully chosen spots grew longer and longer as the show went on. It was like watching a star athlete return from the disabled list and play adequately but not dominantly. Obviously, to expect the Queen of Soul to be what she was forty-five years ago is unrealistic and unfair – that she still nails the notes, has the imagination to reinvent her old hits to make them fresh, and tickles the ivories when she feels moved to, was enough to satisfy a sleepy crowd who seemed worn out from possibly hours of standing in line to get into the new concert space in the former Steeplechase Park. Franklin is a genuine icon, and even with the obstacles they’d had to surmount, those people probably would have been satisfied with a half-hour of her greatest hits, just like the brief but rewarding set the Zombies played at this same concert series a few years ago.

Her first set was mostly a mix of ballads and disco, Franklin’s backup singers usually taking over as the choruses rose, and they did a good job. She chose a slow and rather brief version of You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman as a showcase for some rich if somewhat restrained vocalese; a little later, she and the band amped up her old 60s hit Think with a jaunty, Motown-flavored bounce. Almost a half-hour to the second from when she first hit the stage, she exited gingerly for the breather she needed and deserved.

The second set began with a long, slow swell from the orchestra, which pretty much set the tone: there was even less Aretha this time around. She reached back for a little extra on a well-received, matter-of-factly bittersweet Chain of Fools, the best song of the night; otherwise, she’d back off, then kick back in, then back off again while the band hung on a single chord or riff. When they finally made their way into the mid-80s cheeseball Freeway of Love, it was time to call it a night. Was she contractually obliged to perform for as long as she did? Couldn’t the promoters (if you can call Borough President Marty Markowitz a promoter for anyone other than himself) have revised the terms to be more sympathetic to a legend who’s earned that sympathy many times over?

Before the show, Markowitz went on and on in front of the mic, sucking up to every local (and national) politician who might have been within earshot. A fan who’d been waiting patiently for almost two hours on the boardwalk captured the moment perfectly. “Chain of fools!” she exclaimed in disgust.

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August 5, 2011 - Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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