Diamond-studded diva dazzles at The Strathmore
The house was packed Wednesday night at Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda, MD. It was crammed with a diverse, ready to rock audience of seniors, Boomers and middle aged folk who enjoy “Day Dreaming” about one of the greatest music icons of our lifetime: Aretha Franklin.
The legendary diva did not disappoint.
Throughout her performance, the Queen of Soul had the audience on its feet, groovin’ and movin’ to the music of her voice rising above the band.
Now a vibrant 73 years young, Aretha’s magical pipes have been a part of our lives for … our entire life.
She’s earned a staggering 18 Grammy Awards, was named the No. 1 Vocalist of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine, and has won enough awards to sink the Titanic. Plus, she was asked to sing at the funeral of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and, on a brighter note, has sung at the inaugural ceremony or inaugural gala of three U.S. Presidents: Carter, Clinton, and Obama.
The diva did not disappoint. Her voice still hits high notes only reachable by NASA astronauts and her personality fills the room like a seductive mist.
The stage was simple: black velvet drapes on three sides, with a high drape in the rear that sparkled with tiny, multicolored LED lights during the show.
A large screen would clumsily lower and rise throughout the show to provide the audience with a viewing of the same four out-of-focus slides again and again. Had a TV crew been on hand, the screen might have been better utilized to show a closer view of Aretha for the crowd in the nosebleed sections.
The show, scheduled to begin at 8 p.m., didn’t get rolling until 8:35.
Finally, the 19 musicians, dressed in black tie or, in the case of the sole female musician, in a black dress, filed onstage and began sorting through their music or setting up their stations. The three middle-aged backup singers – Millie Scott, Margaret Branch, and Aretha’s cousin “Brenda” – strolled onto the set and took their places on a trio of black high stools.
“Hey Brenda!” audience members called out.
The audience waited a little longer. Finally, the lights dimmed, there was a drum roll and famed conductor H.B. Barnum bounded onto the stage and things started to simmer.
Off to one side, two dancers, one modern, the other en pointe, pirouetted stage right for about 30 seconds – and then vanished. They did not return.
Barnum led the band through a medley beginning with “Chain of Fools.” The audience was warming up.
Offstage, Aretha could be seen dressed in what looked like a cloud of cream chiffon and satin. It was a shoulder-baring gown with a long, voluminous train. A diamond-studded necklace coiled around her bared neck.
As she made her long-awaited entrance, her sparkly silver high heeled shoes set off bolts of light. The diva tore into “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” with a passion that brought the audience to its feet. They stood, clapping and cheering as she raised the thermometer with “You Make Me Feel (Like A Natural Woman)”.
If someone bought a ticket thinking they were going to hear an exact rendition of one of her recordings, they were in for a shock. The lady has had decades to tweak, deconstruct, and reconstruct some of her most iconic songs. The delivery is different – newer, fresher. You might know all the words, but the song has a novel spin. She can take a single one-inch syllable and vocally stretch it twelve feet.
When a guitarist slipped in a few extra, impromptu riffs, Aretha turned in his direction. Jokingly, she growled, “What’s that all about? Won’t be no extra cash for that!”
Thirty minutes into her performance, Aretha left the stage for 15 minutes while the band played on.
She returned, this time in a slinky black sequined ankle-length dress with a high side slit.
She was joined onstage with a 16-person gospel chorus in bright blue choir robes.
With the extra singers, the music – and the energy of the audience – was kicked up several notches as she performed a scorching “I Will Survive.”
Aretha asked the pianist to step aside and sat down on the bench.
“Richard! You leave the seat HOT!” she squealed.
Seated for a lengthy rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” her ivory tickling added a bravura flourish to her performance.
Then, she played the opening bars of “Respect” and the band followed her down the rabbit hole.
The thermometer inched up 20 degrees. Mopping her brow, she took a bow and left the stage.
But, not for long.
Aretha returned for the first of a couple encores.
Her “Freeway of Love” set the house on fire.
When she returned the next time, Aretha waltzed onstage carrying her sparkly high heels. The evening was almost over.
She scampered off again but returned as the band played a rousing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
Maybe it should be retitled, “There’s Nobody Like Aretha Franklin.”
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.
Aretha Franklin performed for one-night-only on May 13, 2015 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 10701 Rockville Pike, in North Bethesda, MD. For future Strathmore events, go their performance calendar.