LEWISTON – It was one of those summer days where the sun had a filter around it, giving off a soft, diffused light that seemed gentler than the humidity and heat accompanying it. An intermittent breeze floating up from the gorge behind the Artpark stage was the only relief until the sun floated down behind the horizon.
An announcement from the stage mentioned that folks should “stay hydrated,” a hint that many people seemed to regard as an invitation to visit the vendors for potables. Umbrellas popped up all over the grounds, evidence that they could be used for more than just warding off heaven’s rain.
All of this was a setting for Aretha Franklin’s anticipated arrival, a fact that her Western New York fan base was perfectly willing to wait out. Jonathan Slocumb, a sharply dressed man who was pitched as Aretha’s favorite comedian, asked the near overflowing crowd how many of them would be seeing her for the first time.
A mighty roar arose from the assembled body and hands began waving in the air, all actions eagerly acclaiming a desire for the presence of a legend.
The reason for all of this is pretty simple. Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul; she wasn’t the first and won’t be the last but until she ends up on the other side of this life, Franklin is musical royalty. That said, nothing says that the Queen doesn’t have moments where her crown rests more upon earlier accomplishments than current ones.
But that’s quibbling because Franklin can still call up enough emotional power to drive a crowd into a frenzy. She did it often enough Tuesday night to prove that this diva still has the goods and can, more often than not, deliver them to your heart and soul with surprising ease.
From the moment Franklin walked onto the stage, the crowd was standing, hands clapping and voices raised in homage. Along with the Aretha Franklin Orchestra, she ripped into a version of “Higher and Higher” that bore witness to a powerful instrument warming up. The initial phrasing may have sounded a little shorter than during her peak period but still carried an undeniable authority.
As the concert went on, she displayed an impressive bit of scatting on “Until You Come Back to Me,” and “Angel,” the tune Franklin’s sister Carolyn wrote for her, showcased an amazingly elongated gospel-inspired slice of glossolalia.
From “Think” through “Sweet Sixteen” (which featured a powerful blues guitar solo), “Chain of Fools,” “Freeway of Love” and a whole batch of other classics, Franklin let her audience know that, in the right circumstances, age isn’t necessarily anything but a number.
Still, there were some glitches. Slocumb’s humor was clean and old fashioned, but he had a hard time gauging how to approach this particular audience.
There were laughs, especially when he whipped through an audience sing-a-long routine based around 1960s- and ’70s-era sitcoms, but there was still an awkwardness to the whole process.