Some performers might be so content to rest on their legendary laurels that they phone in their appearances. But when fans of all walks of life gathered at the feet of Aretha Franklin at the Ohio State Fair on Thursday, she more than lived up to her reputation as the “Queen of Soul.”
After a quick warm-up from comedian Jonathan Slocumb and rapper Kpoint (Franklin’s son), the nineteen-piece band struck up a musical introduction for Franklin, including a medley of some of her biggest hits. When Franklin swept onto the stage a few minutes later, she looked spectacular in a floor-length gown and fur coat — and not even close to her 72 years.
She didn’t sound it either. From her first note, it was clear that Franklin still largely possesses the astounding voice that made her famous. Slocumb told the crowd earlier that she sounded better than ever, and in many ways, he was right. She zipped through “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” hitting every note with the power of a much younger vocalist.
She then moved on to “Until You Come Back to Me,” but Franklin’s pipes really began to cook by the third song, “Angel,” followed by an impassioned “Think.” Unfortunately, it seems some of the upper notes in her range must not be there, but this particular arrangement of “Think” didn’t even reach for the hit’s usual high notes, so there was no misstep.
The band was incredibly involved in and excited by the performance, and included the most enthusiastic tambourinist I’ve ever seen. It got its chance to shine on the very soulful “Sweet Sixteen,” which featured a wonderful swing blues guitar solo.
Franklin closed up her first set with a lively rendition of “Chain of Fools,” a crowd-pleaser and terrific performance that gave way to a band block while she took a break off-stage. Ohio native and talented pianist Richard Gibbs shone brightly as the band transitioned into a cover of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” with its conductor singing a few lines and encouraging the audience to join in. Franklin returned to the stage and sang the last portion of “Happy” before announcing “Old Landmark.”
Aretha Franklin isn’t much of a talker onstage, but she engages the crowd with her talent and her presence, so there’s not much need for constant jokes; the conversation seems to be in the music itself. When Franklin took over the piano for a slow and jazzy “Baby Baby Baby,” you could feel the excitement buzzing. Not only can she sing like nobody’s business, but she can tickle the ivories and make them sing too! She next accompanied herself on “I Never Loved a Man,” before stepping to the forefront again to sing a drawn-out version of “Freeway of Love.” Franklin then closed the set and left the stage, but the band continued to play right into the encore — “Respect.”
The crowd was in a frenzy as Franklin belted out her smash hit, while photos spanning her career paraded across the screen behind her. And when she exited the stage, it seemed like the show was over — until she began to sing “The Way We Were” from the wings. She returned to finish the number before the band broke into “There’s No Business Like Show Business” as she waved goodbye.
If I have one real complaint about the show, it’s that it seemed to end very abruptly. ‘The Way We Were” was a slow number and I never really quite figured out why it was sung from off-stage. While it was still a solid rendition, I think she might have been better off saving “Respect” for her closer, or choosing another one of her big hits. In any case though, Aretha Franklin put on a splendid show, and if you’re willing to miss a living (and still as talented as ever) legend, I don’t know what’s wrong with you.
(Exclusive photos by Tammy Sedam.)