Aretha Franklin @ Austin City Limits

On the night of Tuesday, November 15th, in Austin, TX, concert-goers were forced to choose between the performances of two very different musical heroes—Morrissey and Aretha Franklin. I chose Aretha and I didn’t regret it. A year ago, the idea that Aretha Franklin would be shimmying her way across the stage of Austin City Limits’ Moody Theater would have been far-fetched. After taking several months off from performing to recover from serious illness (rumoured to be pancreatic cancer), however, she is back and very much alive.

Beginning with a high-energy version of Jackie Wilson’s “Higher,” the set moved between classic hits, new songs and a number of covers, including a fine version of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.” The crowd, though primarily white, middle class and middle-aged, exuded a vital sense of excitement from beginning to end. “Think,” third in, was met with raucous applause, peaking at the line “You need me, and I need you,” and dancing in the aisles.

While she can still certainly hit the notes—and move with them, too—there could be no ignoring the many decades separating Aretha’s 1960s heyday and the present. Her voice, no longer quite as strong, was drowned out by the band at several points, and halfway through the show she left the stage to rest. On return, she paid her respects to the late Joe Frazier: it felt like a nod to the bittersweet awareness of mortality underlying every facet of the show.

Aretha finished the set with an extended version of “Freeway of Love,” during which she kicked off her shoes and danced barefoot across the stage. She saved “Respect” for the first part of the encore—a move both predictable and necessary. Finally, bookending the show with another cover, she played Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” It was as though she was passing on a torch, giving the song a weight far beyond its sappy lyrics. Like the rest of the show, it was something less than perfect, but profoundly moving.

Words by Corinna Burford

Photo by Deborah Cannon

 

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