Aretha Franklin may be the queen of soul, but Patti LaBelle is unquestionably the queen of Minnesota State Fair soul.
I know, I know. I gave Aretha an almost glowing review last year at the State Fair because, at age 72, she was quite regal at times. But on Wednesday at the grandstand, LaBelle, 71 years young as she put it, outclassed Aretha in almost every way — style, passion, presentation, pacing, effort, focus, class, voice, repertoire, fashion, hair, bling — every way but reputation.
Aretha may sit atop the throne, but LaBelle proved Wednesday night she belongs in the conversation.
Let’s start with her entrance, shall we? She started singing “If Only You Knew” offstage and then suddenly appeared as a vision in white, nested in ostrich feathers from chin to toe. Do you remember Aretha’s sparkly wedding dress with feathered bottom and chiffon shawl from last fair? Forget that, girlfriend. La LaBelle was stunning.
And then you should have seen the dress Miss Patti Patti was wearing under the feathers — a knockout red number with fringe. But enough about the fashion. Because it was the passion that made this show something between special and spectacular.
LaBelle was very emotional. After strangely starting to sing with her head tucked behind a plush chair onstage, she got whipped into a literal kick-off-her-heels frenzy during “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” It was as if she were delivering this Philly soul classic (by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes) — complete with an ad-libbed sung verse — toward her longtime ex-husband.
LaBelle, the pride of Philadelphia, summoned similar deep emotion for “Total Praise,” a gospel number on which she soared higher and somehow higher. Talk about trills and testifying. The song of exultation built and built until LaBelle and her three backup singers — just four voices — sang with the force of a full choir. Say “Amen” somebody.
After “Total Praise,” LaBelle seemed totally spent, almost overcome with emotion. It looked as if she needed a break. But she couldn’t let down her 3,138 adoring fans. As soon as it was time for the first vocal line of the ensuing “On My Own,” her 1986 hit with Michael McDonald, she was so present, so invested, so ready to get fired up in this duet debate about the state of a relationship. It was another of the night’s many highlights.
Late in the 85-minute set, LaBelle explained that she was super-emotional because her sister-in-law didn’t have much time left on Earth. The R&B diva shared that very personal information during a medley of the classic “Over the Rainbow” and R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” a heartfelt combination that underscored what a definitive interpreter LaBelle is.
But LaBelle’s performance wasn’t all about big emotion. There was the liberating “Lady Marmalade,” her 1975 disco classic that she turned into a fun exercise during which three guys from the crowd joined her onstage for solo vocal showcases. And this time — unlike at LaBelle’s show at Mystic Lake in June — these fellows could sang.
But the fans came to see Miss Patti Patti work it. And work it she did, with a truly regal performance.