Ain’t no way you start a show with your son in a discount Twins jersey as hypeman/rapper. Ain’t no way you have your valet in shorts walk onstage and put your mink stole and striped purse on the grand piano before you arrive. Ain’t no way you make your entrance in a sparkly white wedding dress, with feathered bottom and chiffon shawl.
When you’re the Queen of Soul, you dictate the rules. And Aretha Franklin ruled Friday at the Minnesota State Fair grandstand.
She strutted and danced, pranced and paraded. Her voice swooped and soared, scatted and caressed. Many times during her 100-minute set, she reminded 9,647 grandstand-goers why she is the greatest singer in the history of modern popular music — and also one of the more confounding.
“I’m feelin’ alright, yes I am, feelin’ alright,” the 72-year-old Detroiter screamed after hitting a piercing closing note on “Sweet Sixteen,” her fifth tune of the night and her lone blues.
Indeed, she had been pretty spectacular from the get-go, nailing the high notes on Jackie Wilson’s opening “Higher and Higher,” testifying on “Until You Come Back to Me,” cooing during “Angel” and getting sassy on “Think.”
And when she got to “Chain of Fools,” she delivered that you-don’t-mess-with-Ree attitude, strutting like she was 25 years old again. You go, girl!
Except she did. In a different sense of the phrase. She left the stage. For 12 minutes as her band played on. It was mostly instrumentals until they eased into Pharrell Williams’ ubiquitous hit “Happy,” and Aretha waltzed back onstage in her white wedding dress and sang a few lines of the song.
The rest of the evening turned into a bit of a mess. Aretha told a tired joke about a dog, she delivered “Old Landmark,” a gospel number, with pre-recorded backup singers doing call and response with her. The one apparent backup singer onstage didn’t even have a microphone; she merely played tambourine.
That wasn’t the low point, though. The State Fair crew launched their nightly post-concert fireworks midway through “Freeway of Love,” per her request. Undaunted, she stayed focused like she was driving on a freeway until the barrage of closing fireworks that sounded like a volley of machine guns, and then she responded with a bug-eyed face of disbelief.
The rest of the second half seemed almost as discombobulated. “I Remember” was balladry at its blandest. When she sat down for a solo number at the piano — the kind of moment when she Aretha-izes a song into the most memorable moment of the show — she went the other direction, honoring a fan request for “Sweet Bitter Love,” a 1966 obscurity that just wasn’t special.
Thankfully, Aretha recovered after the “Freeway” mishap and earned her propers with the encore of “Respect” before surprising with an interpretation of the Barbra Streisand signature “The Way We Were,” which she dedicated to the three deceased members of the Four Tops, the current incarnation of which was her opening act Friday.
Then the Queen took her curtain calls, as her 19-piece band (including an excellent local horn section) played “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Aretha thanked her crew members by name, trotted out her son and even sang a couple lines of the Ethel Merman classic.
Indeed, the Queen of Soul can get wrapped up in the show biz side of things and forget that all her fans want is to hear her sing. And there were enough moments Friday to prove that she still has that marvelous voice — we just wanted more moments of the way she were.