- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

When it came time for the marquee performance at Wolf Trap’s annual fund-raiser gala Thursday night, the audience shambled into the beautiful National Park venue from two directions.

The general public, wearing street clothes and carrying picnic baskets and coolers, entered through the main gate, while gussied-up arts patrons slipped into the orchestra section from Wolf Trap’s lower meadow.

Who better to unite the factions than Aretha Franklin, whose funky soul music appeals to rich, poor and middle class, young and old, black and white alike?

Looking radiant in a white gown with spangled floral print and a celery-green wrap around her shoulders,lady soul, at 61, showed she still can command an audience like the legendary diva she is, squeezing every last ounce of emotion out of every lyrical syllable.

And she has little tolerance for sound system glitches, throwing a good-natured hissy fit after a buzzing drone blared from the PA monitor system.

“Let’s get the humming thing together,” Miss Franklin intoned to her sound engineers, drawing cheers of approval from the crowd. “We’re not working the amateur hour here tonight. People paid a lot of money for these tickets.”

Lyle Lovett may have his Very Large Band, but Miss Franklin Thursday night had a very large orchestra, conducted by H.B. Barnum.

Strings, horns, multiple percussionists, grand piano, back-up singers and a core band that includes her son, Teddy White Jr., on guitar — Miss Franklin had ample sonic backing for hits such as “Chain of Fools,” “The House That Jack Built” and “Rock Steady.”

Adding to the huge body count on stage, during “Respect” a troupe of young dancers appeared from either wing of the stage, dressed in urban military-chic outfits and distracting the audience with wiry gyrations that were only occasionally in synch with the song’s basic groove.

Then they were gone — no telling what that was all about.

Some of the singer’s old fire — the inspired yelps and whoops and hollers — is gone, alas. For “Ain’t No Way,” she ceded the high-register improvisation to surprise guest Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mom).

And about 30 minutes into the show, Miss Franklin had to take an ill-timed breather, as the curtain drew down on the stage just as the audience was warming up.

Despite lost stamina and a night-air chill that was wheezing her pipes, Miss Franklin sang with passion and care and zeal. No phoning in performances for her, something singers of her stature often get away with.

Also, she announced she has a new album coming out in a month. Miss Franklin debuted its forthcoming single, a song called “The Only Thing That’s Missing Is You,” a cheery, sauntering tune during which the singer, who came out of the blocks a little tentatively, showed signs of loosening up and enjoying herself.

Feeling even looser, the queen of soul revealed the elemental Aretha when she sat down at the Steinway piano for the jumpy gospel number “Spirit in the Dark,” tickling the churchy boogie-woogie licks on which she cut her teeth.

Miss Franklin didn’t pull her definitive cover of Carol King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” out of the quiver, instead ending on the forward-looking note of “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

Rather lamely, the show concluded as a video screen dropped from the rafters and ran through a slide-show of pictures of Miss Franklin with various public figures.

Memo to Miss Franklin: We don’t need to see you hobnobbing with former President Clinton or Wynton Marsalis to know you’re special.

Your voice will do every time.

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