Last month, Aretha Franklin released her 38th studio album, a collection of songs made famous by female singers called “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics.”
But everyone knows there is only one singer worthy of the D-word and it’s the Queen of Soul herself.
At a packed Fox Theatre on Saturday, as the sounds of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” played, Franklin, 72, strutted out in a short fur coat over a beaded beige gown, bobbing her head as she made her way to the microphone stand at center stage.
Though she sounded a bit foggy at first, overpowered by her 19-piece band (including a 10-member orchestra) and aided greatly by her two backup singers, Franklin needed approximately two minutes to adjust to the sound onstage and zoom into full Aretha mode.
The husky muscularity in her voice was always present, whether she was standing next to the black grand piano and pouring out the plaintive “It Hurts Like Hell” or inviting listeners on a sticky, swinging stroll through B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen.”
The appreciative crowd popped to its feet at the first recognizable notes of “Chain of Fools.” The song is undiminished by time, but its live presentation lost a bit of its punch with the appearance of a distracting trio of dancers. She’s Aretha Franklin. No dancers needed, thanks. (They returned at the end of the set during “Freeway of Love” and again – meh).
Throughout the 90-minute concert, Franklin was a welcoming presence. Her movement was constant, always swinging her arms, nodding her head (adorned with a long, blonde-ish wig) and in some way staying married to the rhythm.
A few songs into the set, Franklin exited the stage while her band performed an instrumental interlude. She returned several minutes later in a black and white floor-length gown, dancing to a recorded Charlie Wilson song in the arms of longtime beau Willie Wilkerson.
While the legendary singer – the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – has remained vague about the health issues that have plagued her the past few years, she came close to full disclosure during the gospel throwdown “Old Landmark.”
“If you haven’t been to church, get ready, ‘cause we’re going now,” she said at the start of the song.
Capping the song with some sky-high notes, Franklin shifted into preacher mode and shared the story of her health ordeal in song, talking about doctor’s visits, receiving bad news, praying and keeping her faith and getting a clean CAT scan result.
It felt awkward to segue from that uplifting bout of story and song into the Keyshia Cole ballad “I Remember,” but again, she’s Aretha. Don’t argue.
In between Franklin’s fabulous cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” from her new album – her voice swooping up and down the chorus and the taste of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” tucked into the song – and the slinky blues of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You),” Franklin reminded the audience that she’s been coming to Atlanta for 50 years. In addition to her professional connection, her siblings attended Clark University and Morehouse College and, on Saturday, her Atlanta-based cousin was in attendance.
A highlight of the concert found Franklin beautifully playing the piano and steering a breezy rendition of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.”
But of course it was the encore of the ubiquitous “Respect” that generated the most fervent response from fans. There was plenty of grit and attitude in Franklin’s delivery, which found her going low on the second verse, and the now-iconic Otis Redding tune sprinted with a percussive thrust.
Franklin last visited Atlanta – at the Fox as well – in March 2012. Some dates since then fell through due to her illness. But if Saturday’s performance was an indication, Franklin is back, loud and strong.