To be Middle-Aged, Gifted and Black

6 Nov

So young and spirited and expressive!

Cleveland has a great thing in the American Music Masters series, tribute concerts produced by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Last night’s event at the State Theatre on Playhouse Square honored Aretha Franklin, and the packed crowd was hooting and hollering (and also eating popcorn and Chinese food, and getting up and down for frequent potty breaks–hey, since Andy Rooney died, this is my tribute to his crankiness. The theatre is supposed to showcase elegant audiences behavior, dammit!). I saw Aretha perform at the Sam Cooke American Music Masters concert in 2005, a great concert that also featured a star-studded lineup, including artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke (so glad I saw him

The full house shuffling in. The crowd was predominantly middle-aged and up.

before he died, The Blind Boys of Alabama (when they were still intact), Peter Wolf (Centerfold!), Taj Mahal, among others. Part of the grace of these events is the unexpected affinity some performers feel for the awardee, sometimes it’s their wildly different interpretations of the honored one’s songs: Chrissie Hynde and George Thoroughgood at the Jerry Lee Lewis concert, or Nona Hendryx at Janis Joplin‘s, for instance.

Dr. Franklin & family--she's got no height at all!

The full line-up for Aretha listed Patti Austin (canceled due to flu), Dennis Edwards of the Temptations, Ron Isley, Jerry Butler, Spooner Oldham, Chaka Khan, Lauryn Hill, Carla Cook, Kris Bowers, “Twinky” Clark, Melinda Doolittle, Mike Farris and Cissy Houston. But before the party had started, the Rock Hall had a week full of educational events at Case Western (why not Cleveland State?) in the form of symposia, interviews and seminars. The concert itself kicked off with Case’s president, provost and dean of arts & sciences stepping on stage in academic gowns (Why no caps, folks? Like elephants without tusks) to award an honorary degree to the Queen of Soul (Does “Dr.” outweigh “Queen”?). Her family was gathered round, and Dr. Franklin was pleased, gracious and warm. Amid shouts of “We love you, RiRi!” she gushed endearingly as she welcomed the Attorney General, Eric Holder–a mutual crush is very cute to see.


Chaka Khan last night! No, not my photo--click through!

Mike Farris, a self-proclaimed “cracker”, started the music with two rock numbers–I’d never heard of him, but he did a great job, backed by a terrific house band. Everyone was good–Jerry Butler at 71 worked the stage effortlessly. The standout performance was by the still-voluptuous Miss Chaka Khan–I heard her in the 1970s at Penn State, and she’s still very much a powerhouse. Was a mic even necessary? While Dennis Edwards might not have been stepping and twirling as he once did, his styling hasn’t changed, and the crowd gasped appreciatively at his tuxedo, adorned with a sequinned motif. The intervening videos were absorbing, as we saw Aretha sing R-E-S-P-E-C-T or duet with Smokey Robinson on Soul Train.

Rock Hall President Terry Stewart said the artists picked their selections from Aretha’s broad catalogue, and many took her gospel route (or root). Daughter of a prominent clergyman, the church was the source for her emotion, her pain, her controlled wails. Some were covers, but “Spirit in the Dark” is one she penned herself, and it was superb.

Miss Lauryn Hill hatted up for her indifferent performance. Again, click through for photo source.

The only disappointment was Lauryn Hill. If The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill had been a record, I’d have worn it out. I loved the Fugees, I was excited when Dave Chappelle’s Block Party reunited them, albeit temporarily. She was the last performer of the evening and my excitement was building–then was dashed. Not that her voice wasn’t fine–she just seemed out of sync with the band and irritated with them. She kept turning towards them (and away from her mic); luckily the back-up singers could carry anything. Her last song, a cover of Aretha’s cover of “A Rose in Spanish Harlem” went on and on and on….and on. It went on so long that I was sure Aretha was going to come out and do a duet–the Internet ad for the concert had stated “Miss Franklin will appear but is not scheduled to perform,” but I remembered the energy from other concerts and felt sure she wouldn’t be able to resist. But no, it was just Miss Hill, going on and on. At the conclusion of her performance, however, Terry Stewart hurriedly asked folks to be patient for a little while for “a surprise.”

The grande finale! Sure glad real photographers were there.

The interval was fairly long (there had been no intermission), but this was a sure Aretha sign. You could hear some hasty rehearsing backstage, and, sure enough, there she was in an aqua dress, seated at the piano. Ron Iseley and Dennis Edwards stood nearby, and Cissy Houston and Jerry Butler were behind her. She and Dennis Edwards did a great duet–it had something of the impromptu yet magical about it, as if you’d stepped into a studio rehearsal room and caught two voices having fun with one another. She was in fine voice (better than her performance at the recent dedication to the Martin Luther King memorial), and that piano knew its mistress. A beautiful finish to a wonderful three-hour concert–well, not quite the finish, since a blushing Mayor White came out and handed over the keys to the city. Aretha’s said she doesn’t have pancreatic cancer, despite last year’s rumors. It’s hard to believe a voice I grew up with is 69, but I’m hoping she’ll be belting out plenty more, full of grace and passion.


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