As oddball bowl shows go, Thursday’s Aretha Franklin night was a weird, fun bouquet. Opening with stand-up comic Sarah Tiana, who did a funny bunch of jokes about sex, Cracker Barrel restaurants, and her father (“He fought during the Vietnam War … in bars and clubs”), she set the mood of the Bowl crowd (about a third of them got Tiana) ready for something more like a variety show than a music concert.
It kind of got that inevitably. During the night, Franklin — in excellent voice — did a few hits and some okay covers and generally worked the middle of the expectations with poppy songs like “If Ever I Would Leave You” and the worn-out soul of “I Will Survive.” Franklin’s 19-piece band kept pace with the crowd’s needs, opening with a jazzy medley ending in “Hot Fun in the Summertime” before the Undisputed Queen of Soul herself took the stage in shameless fur with Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” By the third song, “Ain’t No Way” (written by her sister Carolyn Franklin) the band was crisp, and Franklin delivered volleys of vocal play — improvising, stretching and bending notes, doing what the Queen should do.
She rocked the hits like “Think” and “Respect,” of course. The strangest, most interesting came with the praise portion. Warning we were about to go to church, Franklin took over the piano and demonstrated her mastery of soul music’s great source material, gospel, a music that encourages transcendental states. Franklin peaked the show early with a rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water,” ending in an extended psychodrama testimonial about surgery she had a decade ago. The Lord got her back on her feet, she said. It was weird but great. She also performed a miracle: Everybody could hear backup singers, but nobody onstage was moving their lips. In the end, she left us with a strange coda. “It’s not about the comin’ in; it’s about the goin’ out,” she said. Nobody came into music like Franklin did, from places of worship, to Blues Brothers high jinks and beyond. She sang “Freeway of Love,” and nobody doubted Franklin plans to go out with everything she can.