An Audience With the Queen, Aretha Franklin at Radio City Music Hall

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin's performances in recent years have occupied a lot of popular territory: Andrew Lloyd Webber, jazz, current R&B hits, American songbook standards, the patriotic song “America."

But on Friday night at Radio City Music Hall she stayed local. Most of the songs were her own singles, from the late 1960s to last year. And nearly half of them were given added-on codas, the drums rumbling and the piano simmering in a single chord, while she improvised words and shouts, gospel style.

She also came to praise her friend Whitney Houston. She was not overcome with emotion; in performances and television interviews over the last week this has been something like an official duty for Ms. Franklin. (She was expected to sing the next day at Ms. Houston's memorial service, before her second Radio City concert Saturday evening, but canceled in the morning, beset by muscle spasms and leg cramps, her publicist, Tracey Jordan, said.)

During a take on “I Will Always Love You"—a bit less dynamic than what she did last Monday in Charlotte, N.C.—Ms. Franklin said, “We'll always remember her kindness, her grace, her style and her dynamic performances." She returned to that same eulogizing note at the end of the concert, talking and singing through a version of “The Greatest Love of All"—"a young lady who was kind, elegant, gracious."

Her titanic band had 11 reed and brass instruments, including a French horn; a vibraphonist; two percussionists; three backup singers; and two tambourine players, who needed to peek from behind the backs of the singers to follow Ms. Franklin's accent cues as she improvised at the end of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." And for a stretch there were dozens of gospel singers from the New Jersey Mass Choir, as well as Bishop Carlton Pearson, who sang and spoke for a minute about Ms. Houston while Ms. Franklin changed outfits. (First a robin's-egg blue dress with tassels, then an ankle-length white robe with gold trim.)

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