June 21, 2011
The Filene Center at Wolf Trap
Vienna, VA USA
Review by Craig Hunter Ross
Photos by Craig Hunter Ross
The Filene Center at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia is beautifully situated in the shadow of the Nation's Capital. This majestic amphitheater boasts seating within a covered structure as well as a well kept sprawling lawn. Wolf Trap is described by performers of all genres that have graced her stage to be a national treasure, and on this night, one national treasure would play host to another.
Following several months of speculation by the media and the public, "The Queen of Soul" Aretha Franklin returned to the stage for one of an extremely limited number of public performances for this year.
The fierce thunderstorm and lightning hovering over The Filene Center was no match for the deafening roar of an adoring audience as Ms. Franklin (complete with a cast on her left foot from a recent fall that resulted in a broken toe) gingerly made her way to center stage in what can only be described as a truly "royal" purple evening gown shortly before 9:00pm. Carefully watching each step and acknowledging gifts and well wishes from fans, some of whom had actually made it on to the stage, Ms. Franklin appeared to be full of energy and excitement as she took the microphone in her hand.
Supported by a 15 piece big band along with 4 backing vocalists under the expert direction of Fred Wilson, "The Queen of Soul" immediately proved the moniker is still deserved as she launched into a rousing version of the Jackie Wilson classic "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher".
America's original diva sounded vibrant and strong, showing no signs of any rumored health related issues as she charged through a blend of numbers from various eras leading up to powerful renditions of "Angel" (co written by her sister Carolyn) from the 1973 album "Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky)", and "Ain't No Way" taken from her 1968 recording "Lady Soul".
Ms. Franklin exited behind the curtain for a brief period in what could be best described as an unacknowledged intermission. Very few left their seats though, as the audience was treated to a big band showcase courtesy of leader Fred Wilson and his ensemble of obviously world class musicians.
Returning to center stage and having made a wardrobe change, Ms. Franklin acknowledged friends including local university music professors and business executives (later in the evening greetings were also extended to recording artist James Ingram who was in attendance), before introducing a few songs from her new recording, "A Woman Falling Out Of Love" (which the audience was reminded is available for exclusive purchase at a major national retailer). A new blues laden song, "Sweet Sixteen" was very well received and gave Ms. Franklin the opportunity to flirt with a few younger gentlemen in the front row. This led into a soaring medley of gospel instrumentals reminiscent of an old fashioned Midwest tent meeting revival.
With the audience at a fever pitch, almost as if on cue, the storm dissipated, the clouds dispersed and a cool, calming breeze blew through the veneer pillars of the theater as Aretha made her way to the piano. An almost "holy hush" fell over the crowd as the gentle notes and words of Handel's "Ombra My Fu" filled the air.
A sincere version of the Sam Cooke classic "You Send me" right into the majestic and evangelistic "One Night with the King", left many in tears. This song obviously has a great personal meaning to Ms. Franklin and one could safely assume it now does for many more after hearing it face to face.
With the evening drawing to a close, an extended version of "Freeway of Love" completed the set. After such a euphoric ending, an encore of the quaint Billie Holiday standard "I'll Be Seeing You" sent a near sold out venue of admirers home feeling as though they had just been softly kissed goodnight.
While there were numerous hits from one of music history's most extensive catalogs missing from the evening (Respect, Chain of Fools, Spanish Harlem, A Natural Woman, Think all curiously omitted), most on hand appeared to have been overjoyed in having had an "audience with the Queen".
* Donald Gehl contributed to this review.