Aretha Franklin has historically name-checked friends who show up at her concerts, and things were no different Wednesday during the Queen of Soul’s return to Los Angeles. Franklin, 70, acknowledged Smokey Robinson, Natalie Cole, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy and even her ex-husband, actor Glynn Turman, from the Nokia Theatre stage.
But that tradition took on a different, deeper meaning this time around -- one that focused largely on mortality. She delivered a touching salute to her honorary niece, Whitney Houston, and alluded to the still-undisclosed illness that put her (Franklin) in the hospital in 2010 and sidelined her from performing for several months last year.
It made for an intensely moving conclusion to an otherwise inconsistent, 90-minute set in which costume changes, odd dance numbers and arbitrary banter took too much time away from the draw of the show -- Franklin’s singing voice.
Following a stentorian introduction recounting her 19 Grammy Awards, her place as the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Rolling Stone magazine’s crowning of her as the greatest singer of all time, Franklin came onstage in a bright orange gown and launched into Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” After only 20 minutes, however, she waved and left the stage for a costume change.
Then came a segment with four lithe young dancers who looked more suited for a strip club than a concert stage. Their contribution was all flailing limbs, gyrating torsos and cascading hair; it was utterly absent of any coherent choreography. It was as if someone had convinced Franklin that if you sing R&B; in 2012, sweat-generating dancers are a necessary part of the show.
Franklin returned 15 minutes later, this time in a far more flattering green and gold lamé caftan, and continued the respite for her singing voice by telling a couple of extended jokes, losing sight of the fact that none of her Grammys or other career accolades have come for her stand-up comedy.
Upon returning to the raison d’etre of the evening, she offered up “Chain of Fools,” hampered somewhat by a muddy and distorted sound mix. Such technical quibbles receded into the background, however, when she mentioned her admiration for, and friendship with, jazz saxophonist and singer James Moody.
It was a prelude to a dazzling rendition of his signature tune, “Moody’s Mood for Love,” in which the soul queen demonstrated that she is every bit a master of the nuances of jazz. Her voice swooped to the bottom of her dusky low alto range, then shot up, around, sideways and down again over the song’s roller-coaster melodic thrills.
Then came the powerhouse closing portion when she took a seat at the Yamaha grand piano and delivered Houston’s biggest hit, Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” Slides of the late singer from various stages of her career were projected onto the twin video screens flanking the stage.
Franklin moved into Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a song that’s long been part of her show. It was accompanied by slides of her own family members as she sang about the “troubled water” she had been through recently, her gratitude for the doctors who cared for her and her faith in God as the supreme healing force in her life.
Even though she’s remained mum about the physical details of her health scare -- from which she emerged considerably slimmer than she’d been before her hospital stay -- her message was clear: Friends and family are not to be taken for granted.
The latter segued into an exuberant gospel workout for which her 23-piece orchestra, including a nine-member horn section and five backup singers, was augmented by nearly two dozen members of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ choir. It was a transcendent finale that took Franklin back to her roots in the gospel church.
After she’d sung her last note, Franklin danced her way toward the side of the stage as the band vamped behind her. She turned, looked back at the audience, assertively adjusted her bodice, threw her head back and made her royal exit.
In that moment, everyone in the house could tell exactly what was going through Franklin’s mind: It’s good to be the queen.