On June 21, in celebration of our forthcoming Anniversary, my wife and I went to Wolf Trap Performing Arts center in Vienna, Virginia, to see the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
The highlight of the show, for me, is when she sang “Ain’t no Way.” Simply beautiful.
We know she was the queen of soul because that’s how she was introduced by the invisible off-stage voice, who yelled, “Ladies and Gentlemen! Your queen… My queen Aretha Franklin.” We also knew this because, well, the woman’s the Queen of Soul!
The Queen brought a full brass ensemble of ten men, two guitarists, a piano player, three chorus singers, three percussionists, and a band director. Aretha and her sore foot led them all in a set that lasted approximately 115 minutes. She sang a mix of old stuff, and new stuff, and really, really old (while she played the piano and sang Handel’s 1739 Aria “Ombra Mai Fu”.
I’ve attached a video that sounds very much like the classical performance last night, just to get a feeling. It was sung with a gospel flair that gave me shivers.
Her big closer was “Freeway of Love,” which riffed for fifteen minutes. By that time, it was clear that Aretha’s foot was bothering her. I’d heard, at the beginning of her concert, she’d closed the show with “Respect,” the one song I truly was hoping to hear. I’d have also liked to have heard “Chain of Fools”, “Think”, and “Say a Little Prayer.” But this concert wasn’t about her old stuff. I know she’s pushing a new album, and I’m okay with that. I also don’t fault her for leaving without singing many of her hits. I got my money’s worth.
And we stayed dry. Rather than the $25 lawn tickets, I decided to splurge an extra $20 for actual seats. We were in a top-level box. Just about halfway through Aretha’s opening act, the thunderstorms started. They lasted for the duration of the concert. Huge booms, and pouring rains literally drenched the people on the lawn. While Judi and I were sweaty, and had obnoxious boxmates (playing scrabble on their iPhones, and taking “illegal” photos of the performers, cackling and talking during the performance), well… Let’s just say, when we left the amphitheater, we saw a couple twisting and wringing out the blanket they had sat on. It was as if they’d pulled it from a river.
A bit about her sound. She was amazing. She may not have the high notes that she possessed in her younger years, but her low register was extremely strong. But anyone can sing loudly. Aretha shines because of her subtlety, expressiveness, and especially, her amazing vocal runs.
A bit about her body. She’s gotta weigh in the high 200-pound area, but I’ll be darned if the woman isn’t still sexy! If you don’t think a big woman with a larger-than-life personality can be good-looking, think again! I told Judi she needed to steal Aretha’s purple dress! It wasn’t her size that makes her sexy; it was that she was big, and she is perfectly comfortable within herself. Not bad for a 69-year old woman!
Aretha had recently broken her left toe. Her story, as close to verbatim as I can recall it, was this: “You want to hear what I did to my foot? Well, I’m not going to tell you! (laughs). I was in Dallas Texas, at a private performance, and afterward, I was at the hotel. There was a pile of shoes. Okay – the couch was here, then the coffee table here, and in between was a pile of shoes. I tried to step over the shoes, and, I don’t know if I slipped, or my leg did something funny, or what. Next thing you know, I had stepped on a five-inch stiletto heel, and now this. This kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen to someone who’s only 44 years old!”
She had a single weak attempt at humor, telling an anecdote about Muhammad Ali not fastening his seat belt in a plane flight. Her joke fell flat, and she shyly said “moving right along then…” and continued to a song.
She stopped the concert three times to introduce three “special people in my life”, whom I’d never heard of. One of them wasn’t even there. She said, “I guess he’s chosen to be incognito tonight.” And moved on to a song. By 10:30, Aretha was clearly drained. By 10:45, there wasn’t a soul in the entire amphitheater, except Judi and me, and a crew breaking down the stage with frightening efficiency. We found our car and sat in the cooler air for another 45 minutes before the car finally pushed onto the road. Once the automotive dysentery was fully released, it took about 10 minutes to get home. I swear, we fell asleep before our heads hit the pillow, before we could ride on any freeway, in any Cadillac whatsoever.