Any Aretha Franklin performance in Los Angeles is a special occasion if only because her aversion to flying makes visits to the West Coast from her Detroit home relatively few and far between. Still, her performance at the Microsoft (formerly Nokia) Theater was exceptional on a number of fronts.
Her voice was in top form Sunday, and Franklin looked more fit than she has in over a decade. Although she worked from the same basic set list she's been using elsewhere this year, Franklin diverged from it several times, resulting in a genuinely spontaneous evening from the Queen of Soul.
The 73-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee sang about half a dozen numbers while also accompanying herself at the piano, an exercise that adds an extra degree of inspiration to whatever she sings. She also brought along her Aretha Franklin Orchestra, which included a muscular 10-piece horn section that accentuated the gritty power of her signature vocals.
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The two-hour-long set included a gorgeous rendering of Lerner and Loewe's "If Ever I Would Leave You" love ballad from the musical "Camelot" as well as one of the longtime staples of her set, a gospel-drenched interpretation of Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
Some of the issues that hampered her 2012 L.A. show — a poor sound mix and a curiously out of place choreographed number with young dancers — were remedied this time around. The audio was beautifully balanced, and her use of four dancers this time to amplify the sentiment in "Something He Can Feel" brought an appropriately seductive and romantic element to the number.
Perhaps the most moving element of the show came midway when she went into a vamp and started discussing the hospitalization she underwent five years ago — an event she hadn't really discussed at length publicly until now. It was widely reported she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but Franklin dismissed those reports without identifying the health issue.
But on Sunday she sang about the experience of receiving a serious diagnosis of some sort, informing her doctors that "you don't know me except that my name is Aretha Franklin and my father was Rev. C.L. Franklin," as an allusion to the foundational role that spiritual faith has played throughout her life. She told the story as if delivering an impassioned sermon.
Franklin sang about the fears she had as she prepared to go into surgery and her joy at later being told by the same doctors that "we don't see what we saw before." In essence, her illness had been successfully treated. She worked the theme at length, developing the kind of spiritual fervor she clearly absorbed from her father and other gospel preachers. That generated a sense of gratitude that she has been able to continue singing, a joyfulness that surfaced often during the concert, in particular her deeply moving performance of the gospel song "My Cup Runneth Over."
As usual, she also took time to acknowledge celebrities in the audience who came to pay her homage, among them Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, veteran songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman, singers Ray Parker Jr. and Freda Payne, and television producer-director-writer Shonda Rhimes.
All stood and hailed Franklin, who returned the compliment near the end of the show by saying, "I love you so much. I came a long way to be here to spend an evening with you," a reference to the five-day journey she took by tour bus. Then she returned for her standard encore song, "Respect," which she punctuated with hand-on-hip gestures that demonstrated anew she's not kidding in her demand for R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
As it turns out, Franklin really doesn't have an issue with flying. She soared in her music.