Jim Carroll remembers a night in New York with the incomparable Aretha Franklin, who died earlier today at her home in Detroit

The date: Easter Sunday night 2008. The place: Radio City Music Hall, New York. The artist: Aretha Franklin. 

Let's be honest here: the ticket for this show was purchased with a lot of trepidation At this stage of her starry career, just what the hell would she do to that glorious back-catalogue of hers over the course of a show? How much damage would she cause? The glory days were in the past and a show like this was about making some money from the legacy so all bets were off. 

Lets start with the positive. That voice still holds firm. She may complain about a bit of a cold and she may be celebrating her 66th birthday that week, but Aretha can still let rip when the occasion demands. There are times tonight, mostly when she’s hosanna-ing and testifying with her backing singers (including Cissy Houston, Whitney’s ma) in honour of the Easter season, when you’re genuinely moved by what you hear. 

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But those moments are a long time coming. For the most part, Aretha and her huge band (I stopped counting at 36 musicians and orchestra members onstage) play it safe and the whole damn shooting gallery turns into a jazz-club supper dance within the first 10 minutes.

She sings moody jazzy ballads like My Funny Valentine and Moody’s Mood for Love. She brings on Ali-Ollie Woodson from the Temptations to smooch through Keyshia Cole’s I Remember. She sings Respect with a regal-like air of careless dismissal, as if she can’t wait to get to the other side. 

The worst bit? That would be the appearance of her son, Christian rapper Kecalf. Needing a breather, Aretha yanks Kecalf onstage and leaves him with us for six-and-a-half excrutiating minutes. I mean, surely she can afford a babysitter? 

Kecalf dumps his backpack under the piano, waves a towel in the air and starts rapping in the most bland and anodyne manner possible. People in the audience begin to look at one another with horror. The queue for the bathroom begins to stretch all the way to Jersey City. Perhaps even Aretha realised this was a bridge too far. She swooshes back to the stage, pushes her son away towards the wings and launches into Chain Of Fools.

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Indeed, the second half of the show is far, far better, Aretha and her backing singers finding some remarkable gospel threads in the fabric. Aretha herself even sounds convinced, throwing back her head and launching that amazing voice to the stars. 

We lap it up. She is, after all, the queen of soul and no doubt, we’re experiencing all of this through a prism based on what Aretha and her voice and those great songs mean to us from various times in our lives. For me, Aretha will always be the singer raising the rafters on the Amazing Grace gospel album or the Spirit In The Dark set where everything seems just right or the very first time I heard I Say A Little Prayer

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The past, though, is another country which Aretha doesn’t much care to revisit. She’s taking the diva route these days. She’s earned it, dammit, these steps to a higher ground where a grand dame like herself can swan around in chiffon and high heels and appear like she’s the swooshiest queenpin of all.

But doesn’t the world have enough divas, enough lady singers with airs and graces? Surely there’s a call for one true queen of soul? As with so many of her peers still out there collecting the dollars, you wonder what she’d sound like in a different setting. But as with so many of them, you can wonder away all you like. Aretha took the supper club route yonks ago and, you know something, she ain’t going back to her roots. 

Still, that voice….

(Review originally published in 2008)