Chaka Khan still has a mountainous mane. She still has a great band and terrific backup singers. She has the smile, the sass and plenty of attitude. And a repertoire that’s deep enough and funky enough to have twice landed her on the ballot for the Rock Hall of Fame, not to mention leading to 10 Grammys.
But, at 65, Khan doesn’t sound like she used to. On Friday at the packed Minnesota Zoo, the R&B veteran, headlining her first Twin Cities concert in 10 years, no longer had the voice that made her a princess of funk, a 1970s star who so captivated a teenage Prince that he had her poster on his bedroom wall.
At the zoo, it was hard to tell if Khan’s voice was shot or just not in tour shape. At times, she was pitchy, at times her voice lacked character and all night she lacked an upper register. During 1978’s “I’m Every Woman,” when it came time to sing “it’s all in me,” she didn’t even reach for “me.” Just too high for her. So she let both the fans and her three female backup singers take the high note.
Khan is resourceful enough to surround herself with three superb backup singers. In fact, it may have been ill-advised to have such outstanding singers, especially Toni Scruggs, who demonstrated just what Khan was missing.
At least Khan had the personality to carry the night, or at least the 55 minutes she was onstage. She did take a 10-minute break while her band offered an instrumental.
At the outset, she looked at the concertgoers fanning themselves with zoo programs and declared: “Damn! It’s fricking hot, isn’t it?”
Later, she asked if she could take off her high-heeled, over-the-knee boots. So a crew member helped her slip into heelless boots.
And it was hard to argue with Khan’s song choices as she did hits from her early days with Rufus as well as favorites from her solo career. The crowd dug “Sweet Thing,” the Rufus ballad when Khan’s girlish voice was passable. She showed some nice jazzy scat instincts on “My Funny Valentine.”
It was hard to resist the deep funk of “Tell Me Something Good,” though Khan’s growl wasn’t sexy enough. “I’m Every Woman” was filled with unstoppable spirit, and “I Feel for You,” her 1984 hit cover of a Prince tune, exuded hometown fun.
Khan didn’t perform her new single, “Like Sugar.” It’s supposed to be on an upcoming album, her first since 2007. But, to paraphrase Kenny Rogers, you’ve got to know when to fold ’em or when to carry on.