An up-and-down evening with Aretha Franklin

Posted: March 18, 2014

American Idol and its ilk have taught us to regard a singer's voice the way progressive-rock fans once cooed over instrumental solos. But what made Aretha Franklin, who performed at Revel Ovation Hall in Atlantic City on Saturday night, an epoch-defining figure was not simply talent or even technique, but judgment - not the notes she could hit but when she chose to hit them.

Before she was the Queen of Soul - an honorific that also serves as the title of Rhino Records' nicely remastered recent collection - Franklin spent the better part of the 1960s letting producers pair her with overorchestrated jazz and pop standards, with results equivalent to a Van Gogh painted on black velvet.

Saturday's show found the 71-year-old Franklin revisiting every part of her career, including the parts where her voice and material weren't well matched. Her 22-piece "orchestra" overwhelmed her at first, due in part to an uneven sound mix that fortunately improved as the performance went on. "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman," whose recording was detailed in the recent documentary Muscle Shoals, was nearly drowned in slick cacophony until Franklin's a cappella coda put the focus back where it belonged.

After five songs in a similarly wobbly vein, Franklin left the stage and let her band play a pair of instrumentals while she changed outfits and, apparently, outlooks. Although the Waiting to Exhale ballad "It Hurts Like Hell" was more black-velvet schlock, at least it felt like she was holding the brush. Franklin took full control when she sat down at the piano for "I Will Always Love You," a tribute to the late Whitney Houston, and followed it with Sam Cooke's "You Send Me," evoking another artist who successfully switched between pop and soul.

By then, Franklin had gathered enough momentum that even the near-drivel of "Freeway of Love" was transformed into something worthwhile. Unfortunately, it was also time for her to go, with only a single-song encore, "Respect," remaining. During an evening in which she offered shout-outs to NBC10's Harry Hairston and her mentor, Philadelphia-born gospel singer Clara Ward, Franklin also tipped her hat to Jacqui Frazier-Lyde and Smokin' Joe himself, playfully shadowboxing as she milked her final exit.

Too bad she couldn't have gone a few more rounds.

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