Aretha Franklin Kicks Off TD Toronto Jazz Festival
26 June 2011 No CommentsBy Anya Wassenberg
The TD Toronto Jazz Festival kicked off with a roar in a generous performance by one of the true legends of music, Aretha Franklin.
About as many people as you could possibly cram together sat or stood for hours on the hard grass of David Pecault Square (aka Metro Square) for the chance to see her live – and free – including the privileged few hundred who’d lined up longer still to get wrist bands and access to the covered marquee area right up near the stage.
The rest of us – numbering in the thousands -settled for a long distance view of the stage and a jumbo screen on the lawn, while several hundreds more gathered around the cordoned off area and still another sizeable crowd dancing in front of a second screen set up on King Street.
The sound was the same, after all, and that’s what we’d come for – the big, beautiful voice that, despite Miss Franklin’s well publicized health issues and at age 69, packs the same punch as the one that made all those classic recordings decades ago.
Local group Jordan John & The Blues Angels opened the show at 8:30. Led by charismatic singer/guitarist Jordan and including his father Prakesh on bass, the quartet played an hour long set of standard covers that included songs by the Isley Brothers and snippets of Marvin Gaye. Jordan makes the most of an assured stage presence and an agile, multi-octave voice. While appreciative, every mention of “the Queen of Soul” drew shrieks from the crowd. He had them dancing by the end of his polished performance, but they still booed impatiently when he added “one more song” onto the set.
Aretha Franklin’s back-up band took the stage at about 10pm for a number on their own. They’re a tight group – as you’d expect – that included a horn section, piano and three back-up singers, (one of them Cousin Brenda from Detroit, as she later told us). In a white one-shoulder gown and one high-heeled shoe, one surgical bootie, she came out and launched right into Cherokee, getting everyone roaring when she followed it right away with Natural Woman. The crowd singing along swelled the volume with every chorus, and she added a local touch to the lyrics with, “You make me feel… every time I come to Toronto, You make me feel…”
The large crowd danced to the first set that continued with more favourites, including tunes by Sam Cooke, the self-penned Day Dreaming, and Curtis Mayfield’s Something He Can Feel. She left the stage after about the first half hour while the band played another song, but was back in less than 15 minutes to continue with another hour-long set.
Live as it is in her recordings, her voice is impossibly dynamic, ranging from delicate nuances and sweet high notes to that powerful growl. From big band jazz standards to blues to ballads and her classic hits, she wraps that big voice around a tune in a way that’s always just right, never self indulgent or overdone. She included a couple of songs from her new album, 2011’s Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love, one of them the first single, a ballad called How Long I’ve Been Waiting.
While the focus was on the songs and not the patter, she eventually did talk about the hospital/surgical bootie. “So what happened to the foot, right? You wanna know?” After the crowd answered with a roar, she continued, “I was in Dallas, Texas after the show, and I was tired, and there was this pile of shoes – Jimmy Choos, you know.” A misstep while trying to get over the pile led to her landing right on top of the mound of designer heels. “I came down on the heels – the spike heels,” she explained. “But Jimmy Choo’s good, they called, said they’d send me more shoes.”
One of the highlights came near the end, when she sat at the piano for a gospel-flavoured version of Bridge Over Troubled Water with an extended organ and voice riff back and forth at the end. She was back on her feet for jazzy Sweet Sixteen, also from her new release, and got another blast of crowd approval by leading the next song off with, “How’d you guys get here – on the freeway…?” and following with a driving version of Freeway of Love.
That was supposed to end the evening, just after 11:35, but naturally, we couldn’t let her leave right away, and she came back out for an encore of Believe. She seemed as appreciative of the thousands who’d come out as they were of here. “Thank you so much for the invitation,“ she said, taking a picture of all of us from the stage, “I’ll be thinking of all of you.”
Anya Wassenberg is a longtime freelance writer with a specialty in arts and culture. Check out her blog www.artandculturemaven.com