British, elegant punk creatrix PJ Harvey.
When I see the Aretha Franklin Orchestra arrayed on stage at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City, I take a deep breath. Not the good kind. The kind you take as a kid just before diving into a cold lake in the early morning because you signed on for some lame summer swim team to please your parents even though you’d rather be doing anything else in the world. Okay, not that bad, but you get the drift.
A 22-piece orchestra plus conductor makes me a little suspicious. Picture if you will: nine horn players, three keyboardists including a Hammond B3, three percussionists including a dedicated tambourine woman, three female backup vocalists, drums, bass, and a hip guitarist with a look somewhere between Milli Vanilli and Lenny Kravitz. (We’d find out later this is Aretha’s son Teddy.)
To see a living legend, one of music’s singular recording voices of the “modern” era—the first female artist admitted to the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame—I’ve been psyched for weeks. Let’s face it: the woman deserves R-E-S-P-E-C-T. And I am about to find out what it means to me.
The orchestra opens with an under-the-top rendition of “That’s Entertainment.” (I’m not making this up.) A quick medley of compressed Aretha hits has all the amalgamated verisimilitude of a Disney theme park calliope in a Rose Bowl parade. Stills of the Queen of Soul are projected on a backdrop.
Out floats Ms. Franklin dressed in heavenly white from head to toe in a long flowing robe-like concoction with long sleeves and pants. Her hair is a sort of platinum pink hue. She looks healthy and robust. She launches into seminal hit “Natural Woman,” mimicking a top o’ the stocking adjustment on her thigh toward the end of the song, much to the glee of the packed house.
Maybe it’s the big band or the deliberate presence, but somehow I can’t stop flashing on Elvis during his fat glitzy mondo-jumpsuit-and-karate-kicks Vegas phase. I know I’m going to bum some people out saying these things. And I truly mean no disrespect. Let’s face it, if anything is secure in this world, Aretha’s place in rock history is. Her voice is a thing of beauty and her truckload of Grammys a marvel.
It’s just that the band feels more like a bubble orchestra, too tame, too paint-by-the-numbers. Maybe it’s just not a great board mix, I don’t know. I saw Ray Charles with his band and they kicked it. Of course, the King of Soul always anchored the group on keys. The one song Aretha sits down at the piano and plays is my favorite of the evening, a song off her newest release, So Damn Happy. In the old days, Aretha did a lot of her own piano playing, including leads.
She does “Respect” and nails it. Her Aretha-lets are a gifted and supple support system. Off she goes and the band takes extended solos. My favorite is by the conga player. It might have been the tenor sax but his individual sound didn’t get turned up till the end of his solo. Next Ms. Franklin does a ballad from Camelot: “… if ever I left you…”—fetching uber-schmaltz for serious lovers. Then into a full-out gospel blaster. Her gospel roots run deep. She cut her teeth singing in her father’s Baptist Church in Detroit.
Now images of “Liberace” and “Diana Ross meets Kate Smith” are drifting through my open mind, possessing and caressing me. She does another ballad complete with Judy Garland de-glissando and dig this: she sings along to pre-recorded music while the 22-piece ensemble sit and watch! Wow. When she reaches the climax of the song, and a certain high note is required, she points to the sky and doesn’t even attempt it. People clap anyway. Woh.
The upbeat finale is the cruise control rock hit “Freeway of Love,” a ride down Memory Lane. With outstretched arms, Lady A gets everybody up on their feet. I could swear the backup singers are singing, “Sheep, sheep.”
The final ballad has a “When You Walk through a Storm” vibe with a beautiful line: believe in yourself, because I believe in you. Her encore amounts to reappearing for another bow—no “last” last song as is de rigueur these days at concerts—and that is that. Finished by 9:30 p.m.
To summarize, I’m glad I went for the sheer homage factor alone. $75 a ticket? Ouch. Perhaps the antiseptic nature of her orchestra plays well on the nostalgia scene. She does a mic thing that bugs me though, wiggling it back and forth like a snake sometimes when she holds a long note. It makes her voice sound like a cheap Hammond B3 Leslie. I would just love to see her in a more intimate musical setting sometime.
Which leaves me only 369 words to describe PJ Harvey’s concert at First Avenue in Minneapolis.
PJ is an oracle and a visionary. The British elegant punk creatrix’s songs are just like her: tiny explosions of huge beauty and awesome power. She writes rock songs that dissemble the universe. They are simple in structure: choice bass lines, repeating chords, nursery rhymes of angst and desire, plaintive vocals a la Patti Smith. Because she often records everything on her albums, her personal touch is all over all of her songs.
She can roar. She can roil. She can be tender. It seems she can be anything but uninteresting. When she takes the stage, I am taken aback by her diminutive waifhoodedness. She is literally a wisp of a girl, but her music has claws and fangs and cracks like a whip, stings like a wasp.
Harvey’s sense of rhythm is death-defying. When she strums her electric guitar, it is a living thing, an extension of her core being. She is wearing a short off-the-shoulder sleeveless velvet red dress with white open-winged doves and matching red velvet wrist-to-shoulder arm sleeves, very classy, artsy, campy, feminine, with bright lime high heels. Black bangs cover her glowing eyes at all times. She is otherworldly somehow.
Her five-piece band is raw and polished. The 1000-body place is sold out. I’m in the pit in front of the stage. Harvey doesn’t chat between songs, just stays inside the material but every once in a while a hint of satisfaction crosses her face. The crowd is loving and loud. Her rock of aegis musicianship and primal tribal rhythms and singing power is thought-stopping, mind-bending, and heart-melting. When she breaks into old favorite “50 FT QUEENIE,” the place erupts.
This is the song my dear crazy drummer/painter/blown friend Lance used to love so much. We played Harvey’s “You Said Something” at his funeral service.
“A rooftop, Manhattan, at one in the morning, and you said something that I’ve never forgotten,” she sings, but never says what it is. (Off the Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea CD.)
She’s recently written five songs for Marianne Faithfull’s new album Before the Poison.
Harvey’s latest release is Uh Huh Her. This is a soul who is not afraid to look life in the eye, a bare bones minimalist who expresses herself richly in near haiku incantations.
If you tell a lie
I would still take the blame
If you pass me by
It’s a shame, shame, shame.
(From the song “Shame.”)