It’s an almost impossible task to choose a highlight from Aretha Franklin’s monstrous catalog. Similarly, one would be hard pressed to choose one moment or one performer from the all-star celebration of her music as the standout. The concert, the latest in Knitting Factory and City Winer-founder Michael Dorf’s annual series, filled the historic Carnegie Hall with two solid hours of hits that served to further cement the truly legendary status that Aretha holds. For the most part, it was exactly what you hope for out of a tribute concert; a slate of excellent performers all bringing something unique to the table, but always remaining in Aretha’s shadow, reaching for that quality that only the true Queen of Soul could ever truly achieve.
The night was held together by Brooklyn-based afrobeat band Antibalas serving as the house band, over which the diverse group of special guests could do their thing. Whether it was Sarah Dash, a longtime backup singer for artists like The Rolling Stones and Patti LaBelle singing a funky “Dr. Feelgood” or country legend Rodney Crowell (who filled in after Glen Hansard had to drop out) doing a rendition of “The Weight,” a version of which Franklin recorded in 1969, Antibalas were able to inhabit every change in style thrown their way. They were also given their own chance to shine early on in the evening with a rousing performance of “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” led by the group’s lead vocalist Amayo. The handful of artists who opted to pare things down for their performances, including Allen Stone, who delivered a gripping show-opening performance of “I Say a Little Prayer” with just his stunner of a voice and an electric guitar, provided moments of powerful intimacy that contrasted nicely with the more uplifting danceable soul numbers.
While the concert featured numerous knockout performances from singers like Naomi Shelton, Don Bryant, and Sam Moore along with his niece Courtney Trice, it was often some of the more unique interpretations that would grab the audience’s attention. G. Love whipping his slide along the neck of a 12-string guitar on “Think” or Melissa Etheridge’s fiery “I Never Loved a Man” stood out for the ways they took the song into their own hands. That being said, there were undeniably artists who delivered show-stopping moments while keeping things faithful. The group of young musicians from Little Kids Rock, one of the charities the concert benefits, blew the crowd away on “Respect” and soul singer Bettye LaVette, who mentioned knowing Aretha since she was just 18 left some jaws on the floor with her impassioned “Ain’t No Way,” which saw her walk off stage to a standing ovation while the band kept playing. Living Colour brought the show to a close with such a forceful groove on “Rock Steady” that it’s hard to imagine there was a single person with their ass still in their seat by the end of it, and that’s not to mention singer Corey Glover’s phenomenal James Brown-esque screams.
Closing things off with the obligatory everyone-on-the-stage finale, the group reprised “Respect” with vocals being handed off to whoever wanted to sing. In a night filled with names big and small, it often seemed that the most impressive moments came from those the audience least expected, which is what one often hopes for with a night like this. Aretha Franklin’s legacy is one that often speaks for itself, but to witness it brought to life like this reminds you just how wide and far that legacy spreads.