When an opportunity to attend a master class presents itself, you don’t say no. Ain’t no way. Especially when the teacher is an 18-time Grammy winner and a resume that reads like the history of popular American soul and R&B. And on a hot summer Sunday night at Cincinnati’s Riverbend Music Amphitheatre, Aretha Franklin did not disappoint, taking the stage as the sun was setting, with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra prepared to back her for one of the Motor City legend’s few live performances so far this year.
With her crack backing band joining a string, horn and percussion section led by Pops conductor John Morris Russell, Franklin strutted out onto the stage in a glittery black and white jacket and skirt ensemble, jumping right into her 1987 No. 1 hit (with George Michael) “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).” Showing no signs of the health issues that laid her low in 2013, Franklin’s voice was strong and spirited during her signature smash “Think,” with the call and response “freedom!” charging up the crowd.
Stepping gingerly over to stage left, Franklin, 74, greeted some Baby Boomer superfans in the front rows, smiling as they held up their programs and turned around to pose for selfies with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer in the background. On a night when Franklin sprinkled in a number of her signature covers, one of the more surprising takes was a remake of Celine Dion’s Titanic theme song, “My Heart Will Go On.” As the strings swelled to a crescendo, the Queen found a way to give the song an extra dose of majesty with near-operatic singing, even as she winked at the cheesy heart of the original by dramatically ad-libbing, “Rose!” and “Jack!” in a nod to the movie’s heroes.
Everyone who could get up did when Franklin pivoted to an energetic “Chain of Fools,” waving their hands and dancing at their seats as the sweat continued to flow on an almost tropical night. By the time she hit “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” Franklin was kicking up her heels and the audience was whooping along to what is essentially the National Anthem of the Aretha Nation, hollering in joy when she turned around and peeked over her right shoulder with a knowing look and arched eyebrow.
After a short instrumental break during which the combined combos played a bit of Stevie Wonder’s “Another Star,” Franklin re-emerged wearing a floor-length sleeveless gold lame gown to introduce her band, which included her musical director Fred Nelson, Dizzy Gillespie bassist John Lee and Whitney Houston collaborator and “Freeway of Love” producer Narada Michael Walden on drums. ?It was the latter who provided a booming beat for the night’s other stand-out cover, a show-em-how-it’s-done take on Adele‘s “Rolling in the Deep.”
The Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient made the song her own, giving it an even deeper shade of soul by injecting some Detroit grit and swing as both a nod to the strength of the original and a notice that she still has the power to make any song she touches an Aretha special. And then it was time to take a break, as Franklin moved over to the easy chair set up near the piano, telling the crowd it was “storytelling time.” But, just moments after settling in, Aretha was back on her feet for the night’s hardest one-two punch.
As her voice climbed from dusky low tones to her highest righteous holler, Franklin charged up the house with “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” which was met with row after row of approving finger waving, head nodding and whoops of support from the large female contingent in the nearly full seated portion of the house. With all the programs-as-fans cooling off the crowd, the gospel shouting “Old Landmark” had Franklin reaching back to her church roots before she took a seat at the piano to pay homage to old friend Natalie Cole with an emotional, melancholy cover of the late singer’s “Inseparable.”
The invisible steering wheels were out in force for a show-stopping finale of “Freeway of Love” as Franklin danced her way across the stage and accepted a bouquet of flowers from a fan and the typically buttoned-down Pops players got into it, cracking shy smiles and nodding their heads along to Walden’s rolling drum beats. Nelson kept the vamp going for more than six minutes as even he appeared unsure if his boss would come back out for an encore after her first show in the Queen City in 15 years.
Of course Franklin did re-emerge, though, glittering heels in hand, for an energetic run through her guaranteed-to-slay show closer, “Respect,” which she sang in full voice, hand on hip, before taking a bow and leaving the crowd clapping along as Nelson repeated the mantra, “The Undisputed Queen of Soul!” a dozen times. As if there was any question.
“I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)”
“Share Your Love With Me”
“My Heart Will Go On”
“Chain of Fools”
“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
“Rolling in the Deep”
“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”
“Freeway of Love”