MUSIC / Review: Unnatural woman: Edward Helmore on Aretha Franklin at Radio City, New York

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The Independent Culture
FOR 20 years the title 'Queen of Soul' has, by default, rested with Aretha Franklin. Her entrance at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday night, down the aisle and onto the stage of the spectacular art-deco auditorium, was certainly regal enough. Under a flood of revolving searchlights, she was sporting a black fedora with a halo of purple ostrich feathers and a white foxtail stole and looking self-possessed.

Clearly pleased with the welcome, she mustered her Detroit rhythm section and 25-piece orchestra and launched into 'I Knew You Were Waiting', the duet she originally sung with George Michael. Stripping down the schmaltzy overkill that has characterised her rare appearances in recent years, Franklin delivered a commanding performance. She ran through a list of greatest hits - 'Say a Little Prayer', 'What Can I Do' and 'Chain of Fools' - before soaring into a heart-stopping rendition of 'Ain't no Way'.

She stood almost still throughout, but for some slight hand gestures. But her voice kept the racially mixed audience enthralled, anticipating every inflection and standing to cheer the moments of poignancy. With 'Give me Something I can Feel', Franklin told us she was here to have a good time. A break half-way through the set, however, spelled trouble for the show's pace and intimacy.

Her reappearance in a white frou-frou dress and ballet slippers preceded the entrance of six dancing swans, three white and three black. With the further embellishment of a pirouetting satyr in the middle of 'My Turn', the momentum of her performance diminished noticeably. She introduced the Arista chairman Clive Davis and her Atlantic Records champion, Ahmet Ertegun, before inviting her sons to the stage: Eddie, a preacher, had just completed his second trial sermon, Teddy was playing guitar in her band and Kelf, looking faintly uncomfortable, was the Franklin Rapper.

Back at the piano, Franklin addressed the crowd: 'I'm having a good time. Are you getting your money's worth?' They said they were. She launched into Sam Cooke's 'You Send Me' and the punchy 'Respect', her anthem. Banishing the swans and the mincing satyr, by now transformed into a prince, she regained direction. , accelerating into the Gospel call and return of 'Spirit in the Dark' with congregation backing singers Cousin Brenda and Billy lifting the song into the hypnotic.

She encored with the slow soul ballad 'Day Dreaming' and then came 'Freeway of Love', which grooved and rocked. From quivering sensitivity to out and out sass: it's still true that nobody matches Franklin's range.