Simply being in the presence of Aretha Franklin’s voice is an experience akin to standing before the marble icons on the National Mall or the Mona Lisa in the Louvre: both monumental and inspiring, carrying with it reminders of a rich history while always remaining immediate and moving.
With the recent announcement of her likely retirement from touring, Franklin’s stop at the Mann Center on Saturday was likely one of Philadelphia’s final opportunities to see the 75-year-old Queen of Soul in action. As the 90-minute concert drew to a close, though, she did promise that the city would be one of the few to which she would always return. Throughout the performance, Franklin reminisced about her legacy here, recalling her early days playing the long-defunct Pep’s and the Cadillac Club and paying tribute to one of her mentors, Philly-born gospel legend Clara Ward.
The latter prompted one of the evening’s highlights, a stunning gospel interlude that showed off the power and grace of Franklin’s unmistakable voice. As the orchestra vamped, Franklin seized the opportunity to preach about her own recent health issues, ending with a melismatic pronouncement of her doctors’ positive prognosis: “We don’t see no more what we saw before.” The acknowledgment of Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s daughter in the crowd brought memories of watching boxing matches with her father and an informal poll on the outcome of the evening’s other big event (Conor McGregor’s name was met by literal crickets).
Regardless of advancing years and medical setbacks, Franklin seemed largely undiminished in voice or spirit, even if her exclamations sometimes soared past the limits of her breath. A comfy-looking red armchair sat prominently at center stage but went unused, despite the diva’s complaints about walking in heels as she hiked her shimmering white gown to cross the stage.
While it was the unforgettable hits that brought the Mann crowd to its feet — opener “I Knew You Were Waiting,” “Chain of Fools,” joyous closer “Freeway of Love,” and, of course, the sock-it-to-me encore of “Respect” — Franklin was most engaged on some of the less well-worn repertoire, belting out a gut-rumbling version of B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen” or taking a turn at the piano for a stirring “My Cup Runneth Over.” The extended coda of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” was a showstopper, reminding the enthralled audience that even if she couldn’t quite ascend to the heights of her younger days, Franklin had a gift that was more about wringing profound emotion from a lyric than about vocal gymnastics.