Music Review

Aretha’s energy slows, yet power undimmed

Aretha Franklin Aretha Franklin, shown performing at Radio City Music Hall in July, was in full command at the Wang Theatre. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / October 19, 2009

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It’s not easy to put Simon & Garfunkel to shame, especially on one of their biggest hits, but Aretha Franklin’s searing gospel version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water’’ at the Wang Theatre Saturday night blew away Paul and Art’s pristine original.

Seated at the piano in a voluminous red dress held up by the tiniest of spaghetti straps, the Queen of Soul preached as she played, finding a beautifully anguished low and building it up to a gloriously joyful high backed by organ, tambourine, and a chorus of hand claps. When she stood up, raising her arm and calling out “hallelujah,’’ everyone in the audience jumped to their feet, saved by the healing powers of Aretha.

It was a transformative moment, one that made up for the fact that the show was filled largely with ballads. Yes, Aretha is 67, and we can’t expect her to sing all her high-energy soul hits. She did “Think’’ and “Chain of Fools,’’ which got people dancing in front of their seats at the prim and proper theater, but she mainly stuck to slower songs such as “Angel,’’ “Day Dreaming,’’ and “Ain’t No Way.’’ And she still had to take a 15-minute break in the middle. Thankfully the 25 people onstage with her knew how to keep the audience entertained while she was gone, playing what sounded like a late ’70s smooth-soul soundtrack as they passed around solos from trumpet to saxophone to bass guitar.

No matter what she’s singing, though, Aretha knows how to work a song. Her mezzo-soprano, rich and earthy down low, still sears to the bone up high. Eyes closed, mouth wide, leaning back slightly, she testified, stretching out each song as the band followed along. Her voice seemed to move through her rather than originate inside her, telling its own story on top of the lyrics.

The nearly two-hour show ended with a full-on gospel revival. Aretha left the stage for a moment and reappeared with a disposable camera to take a picture of the crowd, then disappeared again and came back wearing a white floor-length fur coat - an ending truly fit for a queen.

ARETHA FRANKLIN At: Wang Theatre, Citi Performing Arts Center, Saturday night

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