NIAGARA FALLS – I’m not exactly sure why Buffalo is called the Queen City. The Internet tells me it had something to do with us being the second-largest Northern trade port in the 19th-century blah-blah-blah.
I’d much rather pretend that the nickname refers to Aretha Franklin, who spent a few years of her adolescence living in the Cold Springs neighborhood of Buffalo’s East Side.
During the Queen of Soul’s inspired, multifaceted show on Saturday night in Seneca Niagara Casino Events Center, she sprinkled a few Buffalo memories here and there, from her summers spent visiting her mother (a nurse at Buffalo General Hospital) to the fact that her brother ran track at Masten High School.
So while we can’t exactly lay claim to Franklin as a city, we can still be proud that she used to be among us, and maybe even make the argument that we had just a little bit to do with the relentless work ethic that drives her to this day.
It was a work ethic that was apparent in every second of the performance by Franklin, now 70.
Backed by 20 musicians, including a horn and woodwind section made up of local talent, Franklin attacked her ambitiously programmed set list with newfound verve, waving the mic in front of her face to make every crescendo, every transcendent hallelujah, as dynamic as can be.
The singer stays in the middle range of her voice more often than in decades past, and it was no coincidence that she spoke the famous bridge in “Chain of Fools” instead of chancing that timeless “Take it eaaaaasy!”
And I would be a jerk to criticize her for it – especially because that clear-as-a-bell phrasing is still there, along with as much passion, grit and pure joy as any singer has ever possessed. Aretha sounded great on this night, and when she did point her pipes toward the heavens, it sounded like 100 years of the blues and a No. 1 pop hit – all at the same time.
Her set had only a few cuts from her classic Atlantic Records material – along with “Chain” and the closing “Respect,” there was a fiery “Think” and the magnificent swell of “Ain’t No Way.”
Instead, the artist spent more time sharing covers that were clearly close to her heart.
She opened with a loyal take on Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Liftin’ Me) Higher and Higher,” inserted her own lyrics into B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen” (which she apparently first heard while walking down Main Street in Buffalo), and sat down at the piano to deliver a tribute to Whitney Houston, in the form of a gorgeously subdued “I Will Always Love You.” Her piano playing, by the way, was exquisite.
The emotional high point of the show came during Franklin’s long, cathartic take on the gospel tune “One Night With the King.” Slow-burning and soaked in optimism, with Franklin’s piano and organ players laying down the kinds of chords that make you want to stand up before a word is sung, this music was indelible, human and true. Franklin wailed and moaned the refrain like she had no choice in the matter, and then broke out with a story about praying with her family before a major surgery she had a few years back. When she capped the tale by yelling, “Here I am tonight! Here I am!” and doing a sly little dance, the goose bumps rose en masse.
“One moment in His presence, and nothing stays the same,” Franklin sang in the final refrain.
Call me blasphemous, but that pronoun needs to change.