Aretha tribute a celebration of life and song

If you weren’t at Troy Music Hall on Sunday for pianist and bandleader Damien Sneed’s tribute to the late Aretha Franklin, you missed it. With the help of her phenomenal ensemble and vocalists, Sneed, who played organ for Franklin on her later tours, delivered a two-hour show that was a glorious celebration of the late Queen of Soul.

From the start, the 80s production of Aretha was represented by an energetic duet between Sneed and Chenee Campbell on “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” and a rendition of “Freeway of Love” sung by Alicia Peters-Jordan. who had the most of the room standing, singing and clapping. A vigorous “Rock Steady” led by Anitra McKinney also had people dancing and applauding, to the delight of the demonstrative Sneed and the organist Alfred Rutherford.

In addition to honoring Franklin, Sneed used the set to showcase the talents of the artists he assembled for the tour. He pointed out the reasons behind certain song choices and how the singers were chosen. For example, he met McKinney when the classically trained singer auditioned for a production of “The Wiz.” It was this background that led her to sing “Nessun Dorma,” an operatic piece performed by Franklin when she stepped in on short notice for tenor Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards. McKinney delivered a stunning take that made Sneed and one of the show’s aides smile and shake their heads in wonder and received a standing ovation at the end.

She wasn’t the only one to win the Standing O. After noting that just like Franklin, everyone on stage started singing and playing in church, Sneed led the band and singers through a four-song gospel medley. Peters-Jordan received a strong response for “Oh Happy Day,” but it was gospel singer Markita Knight who brought the house down.

Knight’s version of “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” was one of the greatest vocal performances (with one of the strongest audience responses) this reviewer had ever seen. During a long riff on the story of Jesus and Lazarus, Knight struck notes of such depth and raw emotion that it’s hard to describe without sounding hyperbolic or histrionic. But she had people losing their minds and it was an emotional high that was hard for anyone to follow.

This is where special guest Valerie Simpson entered the show. As a member of the Ashford and Simpson songwriting team, she is responsible for co-writing, producing and performing dozens of hit songs. As Sneed performed her “Ain’t no Mountain High Enough” earlier in the evening, an enthusiastic Simpson sang along to three songs she didn’t write.

First, she got behind the piano for a solid “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Then there was an animated “Chain of Fools” which Simpson handled well. To close out the night, she and Campbell teamed up on “Respect.” Campbell hit the higher notes with aplomb, while the 75-year-old Simpson really went wild and held her own. It was a strong, crowd-pleasing finale that capped off a fantastic tribute to one of the greatest talents in pop music history.

concert review

A tribute to Aretha Franklin When: 7:00 p.m. Sunday

Where: Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 30 2nd St., Troy

Duration: 2 hours

Highlights: “Rock Steady”, “Oh Mary, Don’t Cry”, “Respect”

The crowd: almost exhausted and enthusiastic all night long

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