The familiar voice swooped and soared, nestling into the notes where it wanted and wringing out the emotion when it demanded.
On a downtown stage Saturday night, Aretha Franklin did what she’s been doing since her childhood in a church just up the street: using her vocal gifts to wow an adoring Detroit audience.
With the sun setting behind her and thousands packing into all the nooks and crannies along Madison Street, the iconic hometown star served up a 105-minute performance to top the inaugural Detroit Music Weekend festival.
The night had come with its significance built in: It had been years since Franklin played a free outdoor concert like this in Detroit. And in an emotional Free Press interview earlier this month, she granted that this could be her final hometown show.
The big event had a diverse audience piling onto the site outside the Detroit Opera House while drawing more than a few of Franklin’s high-profile friends, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, boxer Tommy Hearns, the Supremes’ Mary Wilson, TV personality Judge Joe Brown and singer Freda Payne.
Jackson was her backstage escort for the evening, leading the singer from a limo to the stage wings, where her expansive band was already performing an overture medley of hits. The formal show introduction had been delivered by Stabenow, who rattled off Franklin’s career superlatives.
An hour after the set's scheduled 6 p.m. start, the 75-year-old singer was greeted with an affectionate roar as she at last stepped out in an elegant white gown lined with embossed silver flowers. A day of sultry temperatures in the upper 80s was giving way to an evening of warm summer breezes — including one that eventually blew a batch of sheet music off conductor Fred Nelson’s stand.
And so Aretha got down to business at center stage, with a brisk “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” launching a night that found her sassy, playful and quick with jokes. Losing a shoe on the stage floor during “Ain’t No Way,” she lifted her bare foot and commanded Nelson: “Come on, Prince Charming!”
While the mood was upbeat, the veteran star may have been playing through the pain: Franklin showed no obvious signs of distress, but she did cite an unnamed illness as she sat to sing “Chain of Fools,” one of two numbers performed from a plush chair.
“I’m getting over a bit of a spell,” she said. “But I am getting over it.”
She quipped that without a man at home, there'd been nobody to soothe her ailing self by saying, “Baby, you don’t have to go.”
At least one upcoming Franklin show has been postponed: A scheduled June 17 date in Chicago has been bumped to September because the singer is “unable to travel over the next few weeks per doctor’s orders,” according to the local venue.
She had already opted out of a pair of recent Detroit Music Weekend events — a May 4 news conference and a Friday night tribute concert with hometown singers celebrating the Queen of Soul legacy. Just days earlier, Franklin had been announced as the show's special performer.
And while prepared set lists are never set in stone, it’s worth noting that Saturday’s planned encore, "Respect," didn’t happen. Based on a song sheet retrieved from the stage, the 1967 signature hit had been intended as her show's finale.
So if Franklin was indeed soldiering through Saturday night, the triumph was that much more special.
This was no greatest-hits set. Instead of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Baby I Love You" and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Franklin chose to dive deep. She sat at the piano to romp through the bright “A Brand New Me,” got bluesy with “Sweet Sixteen,” and nodded to her early Columbia Records years with the elegant “Skylark,” joined by late trumpeter Marcus Belgrave’s 19-year-old son Kasan on sax.
The musical high point came with the 11 minutes of spiritual catharsis provided by “Precious Memories,” which saw Franklin flanked by the Williams Brothers duo. It was the sort of moment indicating once again that after all the decades, hits and stylistic side trips, gospel remains the transcendent place where Franklin seems most at home.
There was a flub to start her rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” as she grappled to pinpoint the right key over the lone plunking bass note that opens the song. And Franklin seemed to lose steam as the show neared its end, giving a subdued vocal performance amid the band’s ebullient “Freeway of Love” attack.
But as she headed off the stage, escorted to her waiting car through a crush of fans outside the gates, the feat was already well in the bag: For one more night, at least, Aretha Franklin had laid it all out for Detroit — and Detroit proved happy to love her right back.
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.