The queen of soul meets her subjects
I still get nightmares about Smokey Robinson and his satin silk trousers. I know I’m not alone in this because someone else who was there that night recently ‘fessed to me that she can still recall the soul star’s see-through …
I still get nightmares about Smokey Robinson and his satin silk trousers. I know I’m not alone in this because someone else who was there that night recently ‘fessed to me that she can still recall the soul star’s see-through silk blouse with a shudder. Smokey’s gig last summer in Dublin scarred me for life. A living legend butchering his own legacy with a great big smile on his face. But these days, when Smokey sings, I see those trousers.
It probably explains the trepidation I felt walking into Radio City Music Hall in New York last Saturday night for the Aretha Franklin show. Not so much the idea of what the queen of soul might be wearing (for the record, she was sporting a veritable sub-continent of black chiffon and spangly glitter), but rather what the hell she’d do to her back-catalogue over the course of a show.
Lets start with the positive. That voice still holds firm. She may complain about a bit of a cold and she may be celebrating her 66th birthday this week, but Aretha can still let rip when the occasion demands. There are times tonight, mostly when she’s hosanna-ing and testifying with her backing singers (including Cissy Houston, Whitney’s ma) in honour of the Easter season, when you’re genuinely moved by what you hear.
But those moments are a long time coming. For the most part, Aretha and her huge band (I stopped counting at 36 musicians and orchestra members onstage) play it safe and the whole damn shooting gallery turns into a jazz-club supper dance within the first 10 minutes. She sings moody jazzy ballads like “My Funny Valentine” and “Moody’s Mood for Love”. She brings on Ali-Ollie Woodson from the Temptations to smooch through Keyshia Cole’s “I Remember”. She sings “Respect” with a regal-like air of dismissal, as if she can’t wait to get to the other side.
The worst bit? That would be the appearance of her son, Christian rapper Kecalf. Needing a breather, Aretha yanks Kecalf onstage and leaves him with us for six-and-a-half excrutiating minutes. I mean, surely she can afford a babysitter?
Kecalf dumps his backpack under the piano, waves a towel in the air and starts rapping in the most bland and anodyne manner possible. People in the audience begin to look at oneanother with horror. The queue for the bathroom begins to stretch all the way to Jersey.
Perhaps even Aretha realised this was a bridge too far. She swooshes back to the stage, pushes her son away towards the wings and launches into “Chain Of Fools”. Indeed, the second half of the show is far, far better, Aretha and her backing singers finding some remarkable gospel threads in the fabric. Aretha herself even sounds convinced, throwing back her head and launching that amazing voice to the stars.
We lap it up. She is, after all, the queen of soul and no doubt, we’re experiencing all of this through a prism based on what Aretha and her voice and those great songs mean to us from various times in our lives. For me, Aretha will always be the singer raising the rafters on tht “Amazing Grace” gospel album or the “Spirit In The Dark” set where everything seems just right or the very first time I heard “I Say A Little Prayer”.
The past, though, is another country which Aretha doesn’t much care to revisit. She’s taking the diva route these days. She’s earned it, dammit, these steps to a higher ground where a grand dame like herself can swan around in chiffon and high heels and appear like she’s the swooshiest queenpin of all.
But doesn’t the world have enough divas, enough lady singers with airs and graces? Surely there’s a call for one true queen of soul? As with Smokey, you wonder what she’d sound like in a different setting. But as with Smokey, you can wonder away all you like. Aretha took the supper club route yonks ago and, you know something, she ain’t going back to her roots.
Still, that voice….