It’s a rare event when a vocalist of Aretha Franklin’s stature, acclaim and sales figures (18 Grammys and more than 75 million records sold) presents a free full-length concert, so it was no surprise that her Aug. 4 Coney Island appearance drew the biggest crowd in the Seaside Summer Concert Series’ 33-year history.
The show was rescheduled from last summer (after Franklin’s fall caused a cancellation) and follows her six-month break due to a much-publicized health battle. Adding to the draw were questions about this comeback: would the 69-year-old legend’s singing retain its power, or be diminished in any way?
The good news is that her voice actually seems stronger than in recent years, and she appeared to be making smart choices with how she uses it. While it’s long been well-preserved in its lower registers, Franklin’s belting has sometimes taken on a raspy quality. But when she fearlessly hit the high notes Thursday night, they rang clearer than they have in well over a decade.
Franklin was in a noticeably good mood throughout the show, not quite as startlingly thin as she appeared in interviews this spring, but far from the heavy frame that likely contributed to her health issues. For some sections of the show, however, she was a bit difficult to hear, with her mic levels lower than that of her fine band (featuring her son, Teddy R. White, on guitar) and her backup singers. Nonetheless, she sang in fine form at key moments throughout the night.
It’s a testament to Ms. Franklin’s taste and artistry that nothing essential seemed to be missing from her 13-song set, a small fraction of her voluminous catalog. She opened with a solid cover of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” and her signature “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” then got the crowd on its feet with “Get it Right,” dedicated to writer Luther Vandross.
Strong takes on her own classic songwriting triumphs, “Think” and “Day Dreaming,” followed, and the band’s power was fully revealed with another Vandross-penned tune, “Jump to It,” and the 1970 hit “Don’t Play That Song.”
Franklin has more at stake than a comeback from health problems with her current run of shows, which continues with select dates through the fall. She recently released “A Woman Falling Out of Love,” the first album from her own label, Aretha’s Records. Her business instincts kicked in when she introduced and closed the single “How Long I’ve Been Waiting” by reminding the crowd it was available “at Walmart and Walmart.com.”
She also gave the people what they wanted: rousing renditions of “Chain of Fools,” “Freeway of Love” (which turned into a revival-style, fitting chorus chant of “Jesus”) and the inevitable yet satisfying closer, “Respect.” One of the evening’s highlights saw Franklin at the piano for a moving “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Her finest performance of the night was one she said she hadn’t rehearsed, a nearly a cappella “Moody’s Mood for Love”, which bested the faster-paced version on her 1973 album “Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky).” The number was perfect for the strongest part of her vocal range and recalled her best Columbia-era album, the 1966 jazz LP “Yeah!!!,” featured in the label’s new box set. Ms. Franklin would be wise to add a jazz album to her own label’s slate, and her solid concert lineup could be strengthened by more songs in a similar range, like the classic “Ain’t No Way.”