No one needed to remind the audience at the Kimmel Center on Monday that Aretha Franklin, 72, is the reigning Queen of Soul - not the T-shirt vendors or the announcer by the side of the stage. From the first notes of Jackie Wilson's upbeat "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" to the night's playful finale, Franklin's voice showed subtlety, grace, and strength - hallmarks of her continued majesty.
Aficionados who have witnessed erratic performances and late starts were pleased that Franklin hit the stage minutes after 8 p.m., ready to sing. Resplendent in a beaded black-and-white gown, Franklin launched into the brassy "Higher" and riffed jazzily on the line "lifted me, lifted me," as if in a trance. Franklin's highs and lows were all strong, sung with a confidence that allowed her to toy with the cocktail R&B of "Oh Me, Oh My (I'm a Fool for You)" and its romantic lyrics, as well as her handsomely jaunty "Don't Play That Song for Me." She was creaky at times, and not every song was Franklin's most stellar - such as the bouncing but tuneless "Jump to It." But she worked each number with passion and playfulness.
Franklin went for the melancholy "Angel" with rich intimacy, modulating her volume by moving the mike around her mouth. A master at the use of background vocalists as collaborators, Franklin wove in and out of their heavenly calls, giving them the spotlight on the soaring gospel soul of "Ain't No Way." She then delivered the real thing - her gospel roots, crediting mentors such as Philadelphia-born Clara Ward - in "Precious Memories," spreading "the real truth of Jesus" with simmering, throaty vocalizations. She played piano while warmly winding her way through the Christmas-y "O Holy Night," yet she was also capable of nasty classic R&B in the fiery "I Never Loved a Man."
Franklin was in great spirits: talking up past Philly gigs at Pep's, teasing her finale by singing a piano-led "Memories" offstage before bounding back with a Santa hat, and ending the evening as a soulful Ethel Merman, singing and kick-stepping her way through "There's No Business Like Show Business."