Luckily no balcony falls were incurred.
148. Dr. Feelgood: Aretha Franklin & Her Orchestra, Southam Hall, National Arts Centre, Ottawa, Ontario, Sunday May 30, 2010, $116.75.
After 35 years of concert going, there remains a number of acts that currently perform live who are on my Still Must See List (Tom Waits, Stevie Wonder, and U2 among others). Aretha Franklin has long been on there as well, and with this performance I was able to cross off another name.
Aretha’s voice and recordings have been in my consciousness for as long as I can remember. She was certainly all over radio in my boyhood. In fact, pop radio never really played a huge role in shaping my musical tastes, with one big exception: r&b. It’s one thing I didn’t hear a lot of at home but fell in love with via the airwaves (and TV too, as a Soul Train junkie back in the day). While I don’t think she’s ever bettered those classic Atlantic recordings from ’67 through the mid-‘70s, she certainly had a much better 1980s than many other 1960s stars, as the highlights from Jump To It, Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, and Aretha attest. Likewise, her Columbia sides from the early-to-mid ‘60s contain some real gems, such as “Cry Like A Baby” and “Sweet Bitter Love.”
I had wanted to see Aretha forever but, through the years, she has rarely played in and around the areas where I have lived — oddly, just a few hours from her home in Detroit. She was 68 at this time, and I went into the concert wondering what that voice would sound like at this stage of her life. While cautiously optimistic about her voice, I was fully excited to finally be seeing this icon live, regardless.
We went to see her at the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall here in Ottawa: a beautiful venue built in 1969 with exceptional acoustics where I had seen Wilco three months previous. Along with Massey Hall in Toronto, it’s probably one of my favourite concert venues from the perspectives of sight, sound, and overall ambience.
Aretha actually made an appearance here at Southam in the fall of 2009. That show was her first in Ottawa in decades and, unfortunately, it fell smack dab in the middle of all sorts activities going on relating to my wedding. Most regrettably, I had to pass. So, it was a bit like winning a lottery when I found out that she would be returning so soon. Yes!
Normally, we sit down on the floor at the NAC but for this gig, we sat front and centre in the main balcony with a terrific overview of the whole stage. The process of getting to our seats, however, was less terrific.
We arrived shortly before showtime and had to make our way past everyone to get to our seats. That’s when we discovered that the NAC’s balcony railings are lower than one would normally expect — at a height somewhere between my knees and groin — as I tripped slightly in the process of squeezing by everyone. When I went to grab the rail in order to help regain my balance, it wasn’t where I expected it to be. For a split second, I truly felt like I was going to go over the balcony, startling those around me in the process. Yipes! Nothing like a near fall combined with almost dropping my cellphone and iPod into the crowd below with a side order of vertigo to really get the night started off right.
Note to self: avoid the front row of the NAC balcony from here on in.
After a few moments of regaining my composure and slowing my heart rate while seated, the show began. Well, it tried to anyway.
All 22 members of the Aretha Franklin Orchestra gradually assembled on the stage while the loudspeakers continued to pump out the canned music. Once everyone was in place, both orchestra and audience endured a bizarre, protracted experience of simply sitting there, staring at each other.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the recorded music faded and Aretha emerged to rapturous applause and a standing ovation.
As I wrote in my Roxy Music piece, there is always that thrilling and somewhat surreal moment when the artist finally steps on the stage and into a sphere that you are now sharing with them. And when it is an artist as legendary as Aretha, there is that extra buzz of seeing a human cultural landmark coming to life in front of you.
She kick-started the proceedings with 1983’s “Get It Right,” but it was with the second number that the evening had its first transcendent moment. As the familiar opening notes of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” drifted through the NAC, I was hit with one of those “holy crap, I’m going to get to hear a live rendition of this tune that’s emanated from my speakers a thousand times” experiences. A she sang that opening lyric of “Looking out on the morning rain,” the bristles on the back of my neck stood up on end.
Aretha peforming “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” on TV in the late ’60s.
She went on to deliver a stunning version while also having fun with the performance, playfully goofing around with the tune as she faux-seductively stroked her hair or zipped her finger up her thigh as if lighting a match while delivering the chorus.
Indeed, she seemed to be having a blast on stage throughout the night, chatting frequently between numbers with big doses of humour. She told a great joke about Muhammad Ali interacting with a flight attendant following one of his big fights back in the ‘70s and, during “Freeway of Love,” remarked about how she’d be getting back on the freeway tomorrow to head back to Detroit.
It was clear within the first few numbers that, yes, she still has that voice, although she has to pace herself throughout the evening, letting her back-up singers alternate with her on some of the more difficult notes and passages. But whenever Aretha went for it, she totally blew the roof off the joint.
That being said, the show had a few minuses. First, the sound was pretty muddy at times which is very atypical for Southam Hall/the NAC. There were moments when Aretha sang in a lower register only to have her voice buried by her band. When she went for some of the higher or louder notes, there was often some distortion. Whether the sound being kind of off was down to our hearing it from the balcony, I don’t know.
The other partial disappointment was in the song selections, which left out several of her biggest numbers in favour of latter-day obscurities and album tracks. I was pleased that she performed 1982’s excellent “Jump To It” — but did she really need to do three tracks off the album?
Surprise highlights included an impassioned, extended rendition of her first recording for Columbia, “Today I Sing the Blues,” from 1960 and when, during the second half of the show with Aretha seated at the piano, she introduced two numbers from a then-forthcoming album (A Woman Falling Out of Love). I can’t remember the titles of these tunes, but I enjoyed of them, particularly the second one which had a classical flavour to it.
“Spanish Harlem,” “Chain of Fools,” “Respect,” and “Freeway of Love” all shone as well but, for me, the apex of the evening was an intense delivery of Lady Soul’s “Ain’t No Way,” penned by her late sister Carolyn and featuring some startling backing vocals by her cousin, Brenda. Riveting.
Unsurprisingly, her band of top-flight players and backing singers shone over the course of the evening, particularly during the intermission when her orchestra played a spirited version of Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” with each musician taking a solo turn. If only every intermission was this enjoyable.
In the end, it was a very, very good concert if not the full monty I was hoping for, mostly owing to the aforementioned uneven playlist with only a handful of classics — and heaven knows, Aretha has plenty. There were probably a few too many slow ballads as well and, unfortunately, my favourite Aretha tune of all, “Angel,” wasn’t one of them.
Still, she had a magnetic presence and the show never lagged. In fact, I had thought the set was pretty short, maybe 70 minutes. As we headed out of the building, I looked at my phone and realized that she’d played for almost 2 hours. It had zoomed by (sorry, no “zooming” puns today).
As we exited the balcony with me making sure I didn’t do another near stumble on the way out, I got to thinking about her 1967 tune, “Dr. Feelgood,” written by herself and then-husband Ted White. It’s another personal favourite that I didn’t get to hear that evening. But, while she may not have performed “Dr. Feelgood,” she certainly spent two hours embodying its title.
“Dr. Feelgood,” live at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, 1968.
Next On Stage –> Ottawa Bluesfest 2010 kicked off for me on night three, taking in two wildly disperate acts: wacky new wavers The B-52s and po-prog legends Renaissance.
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