After a lifetime of yearning and a year (and two days) of waiting, on June 28th, 2014 I finally got to see the incomparable Aretha Franklin perform live. The show was at the Ottawa jazz festival of course, and I type “of course” not merely because the Saddledome-shaped tent at Confederation Park was the perfect setting for her brass-heavy set. No, I type “of course” because this was a makeup show for Aretha’s last-minute cancellation at the jazz fest the previous year (which is why I typed the “year and two days” thing). And while The Doobie Brothers had made for a shockingly good replacement act I had still watched their show with a somewhat crestfallen soul, for I had so, so wanted to see Aretha.
And now here I was, seeing Aretha! (Phew! I tell you, when a septuagenarian cancels a tour you’re never quite sure if the date will ever be made up.)
Her band was huge. Actually, it was more of an orchestra. There must have been twenty-five or more people up there, with a dozen or more brass and sax players all seated in chairs Big Band-style, plus a fellah on grand piano, a jazz combo, and a row of ubiquitous backup singers, all of them conducted by a large, active man in a big white suit. And standing right beside Aretha all night – right up front – was a woman playing the hell out of a tambourine. I had never noticed how integral the tambourine was to Aretha Franklin’s music before but it turns out it is. That lady added a lot to the show.
And then there was Aretha! She might have been thirty or forty years past her very best days but if so it didn’t show at all, for Aretha Franklin could still do something that nobody else in the world could ever do: she sounded exactly like Aretha Franklin. The whelps in Think, the melismatic slides in Chain of Fools, the wails in Respect; it was all there and it all sounded perfect. It was just a glorious set start-to-finish, and it was well worth the wait.
Thank-you Aretha Franklin (1942-2018), I’m sure I’ll hear your voice again as I approach the pearly gates.
After Aretha I somehow I still had room in my ears for more music so I joined my crew for a short stroll to the After Dark tent where the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble were keeping it loud. Looking a lot jazzier than they sounded, an army of horn and bone players fronted a guitar/bass/drums rhythm section and made the tent sound like a dance club. The ground shook with boomy brass and the stomping of the relentlesly dancing crowd while I did my part keeping the bartenders busy. It was a celebratory heavy-playing non-song live BPM dance party that purged the soul of…well, the soul.
Did I make it to the end of their set? Who knows. I’ll ask God when I approach those gates. Maybe he’ll remember; I don’t.