Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Happy (belated) Birthday your majesty

On Sunday (25th March) the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, celebrated her 70th birthday. One of the highlights of my year in 2011 was a rare opportunity to hear her sing at a private function in New York. 

Adamant that the air-conditioning should be turned off so as not to damage her vocal chords (and who could blame her, you don't take risks with something as valuable as that) she took the stage with an ever-so-slightly stern demeanor. But before she had sung a single note, the room belonged to her. 

Seconds later she opened with 'Say A Little Prayer,' and there was a moment where time itself seemed suspended. Her voice, bright and warm and maybe a little softer than I expected, pulled us all a step closer. Perhaps she chose to attenuate her power so as not to overwhelm the small crowd, perhaps it is the inevitable process of change over the years. Either way, what could not be denied, was that whatever she held back in terms of raw power, she more than made up in flexibility. Dancing over the melodies with impossible agility. Never fussy, never showy but just occasionally flexing a musical phrase with such exquisite nuance that left you in no doubt as to who she was and what she was capable of.

It would be easy at this point to roll off a list of the songs she performed that evening. Songs she had indelibly marked her own, songs that only a fool would sing now for fear of unfavourable comparison.

Let us just say that if you're thinking of one right now, chances are, it was on the set-list of this private and intimate event. Nobody who had ever loved her remarkable back-catalogue would have been disappointed.

But it was a song that I personally had never heard from her lips, that will stay with me for ever. 

Towards the end the set, Aretha crossed the stage and took a seat at the keyboard. She sang 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' unaccompanied save for her own playing. It was sparse, honest and restrained. At the end of those brief, spine-tingling minutes I felt barely able to breathe.

It was so tender, so soulful that it really defies description and no superlative could do it justice. But what overwhelmed was the sense that this was someone who had got underneath music somehow. Become part of it's fabric, understood it more fully that most people understand anything.

We as a society, use the word 'great' so regularly now. Too often we carelessly throw it out to describe that which is merely competent, or worse, hyped-up mediocrity. 

But this was the real thing - unequivocally great. Great in a way that far too few things in life ever really are. To be within touching distance of that kind of greatness was simultaneously inspiring and immensely humbling.

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