Saturday, May 21, 2011

Aretha Franklin Makes a Triumphant Return to Stage in Chicago

Aretha Franklin makes a triumphant return to stage in Chicago

1:58 AM, May. 20, 2011
Detroit Free Press

In her first concert since being hospitalized late last year, Aretha Franklin delivered a stirring performance Thursday in Chicago

CHICAGO -- Six months after the world was braced for the worst, Aretha Franklin gave it her best.

And her best, we learned Thursday night, is still dependably wonderful: In a triumphant performance at the sold-out Chicago Theatre, a glowing Queen of Soul provided reassurance about her future as she dipped into her past, serving up a set of timeless hits that was classy, sassy and stirring.

Clocking in at nearly two hours -- well past the 70-minute planned set -- the show found Franklin clearly feeling the night, as inspired and invested as she's looked onstage in years.

It was the Detroit star’s first concert since her mysterious hospitalization in late 2010, which had forced her to leave the public eye amid grim speculation and global vigils. Since reemerging in February, having lost substantial weight, Franklin has shot down reports of cancer while resolutely declining to elaborate.

And so intriguing questions loomed as Franklin’s name glimmered on the marquee of the lush, 3,500-seat hall in downtown Chicago: How would she look? How would she move? How would she play to her audience?

One of the most crucial – how she would sound – was answered early. Her voice was velvety and potent as she rolled into her set, still managing to find new curves and corners in the notes of songs such as “Think,” “Sparkle” and “Baby I Love You.” It was vintage Aretha: She deftly moved between registers, having fun with her own voice, swooping into her husky depths and only occasionally failing to meet the high notes.

Dressed in an elegant lavender dress with a sheer drape – and looking 10 years younger than she did 10 months ago -- Franklin dished up a diva moment early on, wheeling mid-song to snap at personnel in the wings: “Please turn the air off so I don’t have to leave the stage.”

But it was largely a night of high spirits for the 69-year-old singer, whose audience included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and celebrity judge Greg Mathis. Backed by a crack tuxedoed band -- including 10-piece horn section -- led by new conductor Fred Nelson III, she gave an impromptu vocal fireworks display to finish off a lovely “Angel,” had fun with “Chain of Fools,” and got spicy on “Something He Can Feel,” thrusting her hips and bumping her rump to the crowd’s delight.

Franklin addressed her recent health issues just briefly, improvising over a bed of gospel by the band. "I remember what my grandmother said," she sang. "It's not about the going in, when you're going in the operating room. It's about the coming out."

Perhaps emboldened by her own strength in this first show an October date in Atlantic City, Franklin expanded her set on the fly, summoning her church instincts for a gospel interlude and a gorgeous "One Night With a King."

She did seem to tire as the concert moved past the 90-minute mark, supporting herself against a piano as she summoned a last shot of energy for the show-closing "Freeway of Love" and "Respect." A final standing ovation from the crowd -- one of many through the night -- brought the evening to a warm finish.

It’s been a bustling week for Aretha in Chicago -- Detroit's "sister city," as she told Thursday's audience. She was among the A-list guests at Tuesday’s farewell taping of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” singing “Amazing Grace” for the finale that will air next week. Newly inaugurated Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago City Council declared Thursday “Aretha Franklin Day” in the Windy City, and she was presented with the proclamation midway through her concert.

Franklin, whose summer schedule includes an Aug. 25 date at DTE Energy Music Theatre, had been relaxed and smiling backstage a half-hour before her show.

Out front, fans streamed in, arriving with high hopes and ample faith after Franklin’s winter scare.

“This one is a special night to see her,” said Chicago’s Brenda Buchanan. “I wanted to make sure I was here to support her.”

“We were praying for her,” said fan Flora Walker, here as a 64th birthday gift. “And she made it.”


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