Aretha Franklin | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Aretha Franklin 

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Count me among the fans of Al Green's new album, I Can't Stop (Blue Note), the soul giant's reunion with producer Willie Mitchell, who was at the board for the singer's classic work on Hi Records. The sensual, low-end sound that Mitchell perfected in the early 70s remains the ideal complement to Green's creamy voice. Green's triumph made me wonder if the Queen of Soul, whose work with the Muscle Shoals house band was equally career defining, might pull off something similar--I sure liked the nostalgic, Lauryn Hill-produced "A Rose Is Still a Rose" from the 1998 album of the same name. No such luck--her latest offering, So Damn Happy (Arista), sounds a little dated, but retro it ain't. Still, Franklin is a bona fide diva, and new songs are never much more than fodder for her very impressive instrument. A couple of tunes cowritten by Mary J. Blige--who also provided vocal arrangements--are among the best here, but they also smother Franklin a bit. That's not a problem with the more generic numbers, where the singer has more incentive to improvise: her tightly controlled scatting, soaring accents, and sculpted vocal dips transform ordinary love songs into exquisite bundles of emotion tied together with ribbons of pain and pleasure. On "Everybody's Somebody's Fool"--not the Connie Francis hit, but a new Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis tune--Franklin turns a tutorial on how to navigate infidelity into an inspirational sermon; on the title track, which she wrote herself, she chokes down the harsh reality of parting with her true, if imperfect, love to savor the sweet memories. In other recent performances, Franklin's been doing music from all phases of her career, from classic soul hits to a stretch of gospel to her recent single, "The Only Thing Missin'," to the presoul R & B she cut for Columbia. But they're all just vehicles to take that voice wherever it wants to go. Jackie Allen opens. Wednesday, December 31, 9 PM, Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State; 312-263-1138 or 312-902-1500.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kwaku Alston.

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