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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Live: Up Against Moogfest, Analog Aretha Reigns Supreme in Durham

Posted by on Sat, May 21, 2016 at 8:28 AM

click to enlarge Aretha Franklin in DPAC - PHOTO BY ALLISON HUSSEY
  • Photo by Allison Hussey
  • Aretha Franklin in DPAC
Aretha Franklin & Moogfest
Durham Performing Arts Center & Downtown Durham
Thursday, May 19, 2016

Spend time at a music festival, and your conversations will inevitably turn to, “So what are you going to see later?” On night one of Moogfest, those answers included Gary Numan, Miike Snow, Ryan Hemsworth, and Jlin. But in the tech- and future-focused festival setting, no one expected the response “Aretha Franklin!” She wasn’t a part of the festival, as she held court at the nearby (and sold-out) Durham Performing Arts Center. Still, the Queen of Soul’s arrival offered an intriguing complement to Moogfest.

Even a few minutes of Greg Fox’s late afternoon Durationals set at 21c was impressive enough, proving just as much an athletic feat as an artistic one. Afterward, I went upstairs to attend a discussion about the merit of record reissues. It was moderately interesting, but at times felt like insider-baseball blathering—you know, pretty typical record-nerd-dude stuff. In a room of about twenty people, there were never more than four women: two volunteers, myself, and two others who left early or arrived late.

So, yes, when I left, I was primed to witness a powerful woman of color command a crowd of nearly three thousand people.

It is kind of a wonder that Aretha Franklin continues to grace us with her presence at all, and that, amid the HB 2 backlash, she made it to Durham. She has a habit of canceling, and people griped when she canceled her January show. But at seventy-four, she remains a bona fide American treasure in a time when those seem to be disappearing at an elevated rate. She has given us so much that demanding any more feels greedy.

When Franklin joined her twenty-plus piece orchestra—which included three keys players, three percussionists, four back-up vocalists, and a full brass section—the energy in the room changed immediately. Everyone was ecstatic. The Queen had arrived, decked out in a floor-length, gold-sequined gown and high heels to match. She came wrapped in a giant fur coat, too, which she dropped from her shoulders into the waiting arms of an assistant. “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” made for a magnificently appropriate opener. She kept the audience wrapped around her finger throughout both of her forty-five minute sets, and we (mostly) sat and absorbed the visceral warmth of it all.

Seeing Franklin in Durham Thursday was not the same as seeing her in her prime. She missed some of the words to “Think,” and her high notes weren’t always so high. But by god, she still belts it, and does so better than the contemporary stars that are a third of her age—with the notable exception, perhaps, of Adele, whose “Rolling in the Deep” Franklin covered after a set break.

It wasn’t the best performance I’ve ever seen, but it felt important to witness pure, raw power like Franklin’s. When you merely get to exist in the presence of such genuine greatness, you feel lucky to exist at all.

click to enlarge Blood Orange through the crowd at Moogfest - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Blood Orange through the crowd at Moogfest
After Aretha, I hustled over to Motorco’s parking lot—er, Motorco Park—to catch Blood Orange, one of my need-to-see acts for Moogfest. Pitting the slick and sexy pop act against Franklin doesn’t seem entirely fair—it’s apples, and, well, Blood Oranges. But Dev Hynes and company turned in an excellent set, hitting a high-water mark when the band teased a section of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme before sliding into “Chamakay.” And at the Carolina Theatre, Daniel Lanois delivered ethereal, magnificent pedal steel creations that made a fine (if somewhat early) end to the evening.

A big selling point of Moogfest is looking into the future and exploring what’s-nexts in music, technology, thought, and culture. Franklin’s diversion offered a bold and necessary counterpoint. Sticking to old school, it’s-always-been-done-this-way thought certainly isn’t healthy all the time, but sometimes, its all right to pump the brakes as we hurtle toward our bright, big future.

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