LIVE: Aretha Franklin @ EMPAC at RPI, 12/4/09

It was a private party for the RPI community – faculty, staff, students, alum – to celebrate Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson’s tenth anniversary as college president. So there wasn’t any off-campus advertising for last Friday night’s concert by the one and only Aretha Franklin.

But there were no-shows – even for a soul-soaked, semi-swanky soiree like this one – so a surprising number of tickets were made available to the general public just before showtime. For free.

The last time that the Queen of Soul was scheduled to perform in the Capital Region was nearly three years ago at the Palace Theatre in Albany on March 17, 2007. Blasted by a somewhat freaky St. Patrick’s Day snowstorm, Franklin postponed the show to June 27. But before the date of that concert rolled around on the calendar, Franklin had canceled that make-up date as well.

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Her EMPAC concert was worth waiting for, though. At the age of 67, she can still send shivers up your spine. Admittedly, Franklin never broke a sweat on Friday, but it’s no mere cliche to say even in cruise control mode, Franklin can outsing at least 98 percent of the artists currently in the Top 40. And she did. Her voice is in great shape, and she swooped through a batch of her hits, including “Think,” “Until You Come Back to Me” and “Chain of Fools.”

There were a few missteps: I think her thankfully abridged rendition of Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body” was supposed to be funny, but I’m not sure. A minor quibble, to be sure.

At the hour mark, she launched into “Respect” – with a little scat singing vs. electric guitar (played by her son Teddy) duel as an introduction – and I figured that the show was over: short, but sweet and ever-so-soulful.

I was wrong. Franklin nudged Richard Gibbs off of his piano bench and began a song. The 10-piece horn section came in, and Aretha stopped playing, waving her arm. “No, not that song,” she decreed. “This one.” She started up again, while musical director-conductor H.B. Barnum scrambled to cue the 22-piece band on the correct song selection – Sam Cooke’s classic “You Send Me.” It was glorious – the best performance of the night. At least until the very next tune.

Still at the piano, Franklin pounded out a righteous, rumbling instrumental introduction and then sent her vocal cords sailing through “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” For about 12-15 minutes.

It was epic. It was towering. It was transcendent – Franklin testifying and her quartet of back-up singers wailing right back in a call-and-response crescendo. Then they kicked it into double-time, and Franklin rose up from the piano and served up a bit of fancy footwork as she danced across the stage.

Now, Franklin is not a small woman. And she was decked out in a bright red, sparkling, floor-length gown with a four-foot train trailing behind her, making any kind of choreography a chore and a half. But when the spirit moves you, you just gotta surrender.

And when Aretha sings, you can bet that the spirit is gonna move you.


Higher and Higher (Jackie Wilson)
Share Your Love With Me
Until You Come Back to Me
Call Me
Chain of Fools
? instrumental interlude/band intros
I Remember (Keyshia Cole)
Touch My Body (Mariah Carey)
Mack the Knife
You Send Me
Bridge Over Troubled Water
One Night With the King
My Grown Up Christmas Wish
Freeway of Love

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