It would be dishonest to say that Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin’s concert Monday at Oakland’s Oracle Arena was the best show ever.
But man, the woman can sing! At 73, the legendary artist dazzled during her first Bay Area appearance in decades. She belted, flourished, crooned and caressed her way through varied material spanning her more than half-century career. (She started singing gospel in her preacher father’s church in Detroit when she was a youngster.)
With a voice showing no signs of aging, her natural genius — seemingly mentioned in every reference to her — really comes to light in a live setting.
Backed by a top-notch band led by conductor H.B. Barnum, Franklin sang for just over an hour, opening with “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” then moving to the Luther Vandross-produced “Jump to It,” then to the soulful “Ain’t No Way,” written by her sister Carolyn. She also did the lovely “Angel,” also by her sister.
“Think” (a song she wrote in the 1960s that got more famous from the “The Blues Brothers” movie) was rousing, as was “Chain of Fools.” She sang gospel from a big-selling early career album “Amazing Grace,” in a medley boosted by great guitar work by Matt Dahlgren, piano by Richard Gibbs, and backup vocals by Fonzi Thornton, Tawatha Agee and Vaneese Thomas.
Plugging her new “diva classics” album, she sang “I Will Survive,” and later showcased her formidable piano skill with a religious “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in which she testified to the power of prayer. From the 1980s, she did “Freeway of Love.”
For a tense few moments, when she told the audience what a treat it was to come back to Oakland, then left the stage, it seemed like she wouldn’t sing “Respect.”
But she came back out and did, and it was as urgent and fresh as in 1967.
Yet the show was less than perfect due to iffy production values. The video display either repeated flashing the same few photos of Franklin, or, even worse, didn’t capture the most important action happening onstage for people in the rafters. (This also was the case for adorable Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, whose delightful opening set included solo material, plentiful 1990s R&B megahits he wrote and produced, covers of James Taylor and Eric Clapton and a run into the audience, his shirt unbuttoned, flapping behind him.)
And it would have been terrific to hear more from Franklin, whose 10-minute break mid-show (she seemed to have trouble with her long, sparkling gown) disconcerted concertgoers who appreciated her band’s jazz chops, but wondered when she would return to the stage.
Quibbles aside, the queen didn’t disappoint. She illustrated why she’s called “the greatest singer of all time.”