WHO: Aretha Franklin, Isley Brothers
WHEN: Sat., August 22, 2015
WHERE: Chene Park
It’s 12:30 on Sunday morning and 73-year old Aretha Franklin still doesn’t want to leave the stage at Chene Park. She is waving and thanking her fans as “Respect” finishes up, her stellar band going into “There’s No Business Like Show Business” to finally play her off.
All the way back at what almost feels like a totally different show, The Isley Brothers kicked off the night, busting out of the gate with “Fight the Power.” The legendary funk and soul group actually made a case for themselves as one of the most underrated and influential groups of all time. They played a bunch of their own hits, but plenty of these songs doubled as classic hip hop productions. A rap fan who for some reason had never heard of the Isleys still would have gotten excited by Biggie Smalls, Ice Cube, and Kendrick Lamar beats. Ronald Isley’s voice may not quite have the strength it once did, but he’s still stylish and his pull game is strong as ever — during “It’s Your Thing,” he was literally surrounded by dancing female fans who invaded the stage. It was Ernie Isley, though, was the powerhouse on Saturday night, powering many of the songs with his virtuosic guitar heroics (even playing with his teeth at one point). He capped the night off after “Shout” with his own rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner.”
Around 10:30, Aretha opened her set with a jazzy rendition of Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” that quickly showed off her A-plus band. A full jazzy ensemble complete with horns, keys, multiple percussionists, guitarists, and back-up singers, Franklin’s musicians played flawlessly and were perfect for augmenting her music.
But obviously, you don’t come to an Aretha concert to hear her band. Franklin’s voice was still just as astounding as it’s ever been, to a point that defies any kind of logic or explanation. Sometimes, because of the band playing too loud or because the sound was bouncing off seats in the three-quarters-full-at-best amphitheater, the sound was less than crystal clear, but as far as the actual vocals went, Franklin was still perfect. Unlike pretty much any other performer who’s been around as long as she has, I don’t think there was a single song in the Chene Park show that I thought a younger Aretha would’ve sung better.
Franklin didn’t waste any time finding her groove. Wearing a shimmering gold dress and fur coat, she blew through the first half of her set. The opening run was highlighted by a “Think” that was played at punk-rock speed and a powerful, poignant “Ain’t No Way.”
After taking a short break, during which her band continued playing, Franklin came back out in a darker dress of a similar sparkle and a small white hat. She immediately picked back up where she left off, introducing the band in a gospel rave-up style and performing a cover of “I Will Survive.” This version comes off her new record Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics, and she modernized it a bit by throwing a bit of Destiny’s Child into the disco classic.
Franklin continued by going to the piano and inviting a dancer onstage, delving back deep into the vault for a beautiful rendition of “If I Would Ever Leave You.” Following that song, she stood back up and had four women in red dresses dance onstage with her for a joyful “Something He Can Feel.”
Franklin was enjoying herself so much on stage, which was wonderful to see. She was loose and funny and looked like she just loved singing for the crowd. During the second half of her set, she asked the audience to yell out requests. After hearing shouts for “Freeway of Love” and “Natural Woman,” she said, “I’ll try to do ‘em all. Lock the doors, we’re gonna stay here all night.” Though Franklin ended up, unfortunately, not doing “Natural Woman,” as soon as she finished her sentence she and the band turned up the energy and launched into a blistering “Chain of Fools.”
Once it got close to midnight, things got pretty sentimental. Franklin returned to the piano for a very elongated gospel-infused version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” staying at the keys afterwards for the lesser-known “My Cup Runneth Over.” Continuing a run of lower-energy songs, she brought back Ronald Isley for a duet on the nostalgic Barbara Streisand cut, “The Way We Were.”
Franklin actually ended up outlasting much of her audience. Sure, the slow section was a bit of a lull, especially so late at night, but I can’t believe how many made for the exits before the Queen of Soul was done. Those who stayed got to hear “Freeway of Love” and a “Respect” that was more of a victory lap for Aretha than a vocal performance (fine by me — she had earned it). To those who left — sleep is overrated. Missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime talent finish up a ridiculously impressive marathon of a show is not worth getting home before 1 a.m.