Aretha Franklin shows EMPAC some R-E-S-P-E-C-T

It has occured to me that many of what will become my most cherished RPI memories are accumulating at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. For the past few weeks, amidst the whirlwind of final presentations, reports, and tests, the buzz surrounding Celebration Weekend has kept many students afloat, as something special to look forward to—a break from the stress and monotony.

I’d heard rumors that Aretha Franklin was coming to EMPAC, but refused to believe them until they’d been confirmed. When the “first-come-first-serve” ticket option was released to the RPI community, I was one of the people sitting at my computer (during Materials Science class) with the browser open to the Aretha Franklin page, mouse poised and waiting for the clock to chime 10. I was shocked and thrilled when I actually managed to reserve tickets for both Aretha Franklin and Joshua Bell, especially since I later heard that they had sold out in seven seconds. I really couldn’t believe it until I was holding the tickets in my hands on Friday night. Dressed in our artistic finest, my friends and I left our equations, textbooks, and worries behind, and headed to EMPAC.

The concert hall was lit a beautiful purple, decorated for Christmas and filled with a buzzing crowd. After enjoying some socializing, the doors finally opened. After several minutes of people-watching, I felt a thrill as the band walked onto stage. A grand pianist, an organist, two tambourinists, a base guitarist, an electric guitarist, a drummer, four backup singers, a synthesizer player, and a mixed brass and woodwind section were necessary to fully support Franklin’s vocal stylings. She kept the band waiting for quite some time and the show started late, but the diva finally paraded on stage, wearing a fantastic red dress embroidered in butterflies and complemented by a gauze shawl.

She opened with “Think,” the song that boosted her career when it was featured in the The Blues Brothers. The set was nearly two hours long, and both old favorites and lesser known songs were featured, and the band played an “intermission” which showcased each band member’s extraordinary talent. The saxophone and the grand piano were particularly impressive, and the synthesizer solo was greatly appreciated by the nerds in the crowd.

Overall, the show was excellent, and the audience had an incredible time. I couldn’t help but smile at the old couple in front of me gettin’ their groove on. There were countless standing ovations throughout the show. However, there was no getting past the fact the Queen of Soul is now 67, and her voice is not what it once was. Her range was limited, and she had trouble hitting the higher notes, something that could be covered by the backup singers or pointing the microphone at the audience to have them sing the part. So while old favorites like “Respect” and “Think” were not exactly as spectacular as they once were, other songs on the set list still sounded beautiful and within her bounds. My personal favorite was “A Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which Franklin still sings beautifully, despite her age.

By the end of the concert, it was evident that Franklin was overheated and tired, but she still managed to keep her energy up and the crowd entertained, and even took to the piano (which she studied at Juilliard in recent years). It was a legendary show; it was Aretha Franklin—the first woman inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll hall of fame, a great cultural American icon, the winner of 18 Grammys, the greatest soul singer in all of history—actually here at RPI.

I know that this is the kind of night people will talk about for years, and that as an alumna, I’ll be able to say, “I was there the night Aretha sang at EMPAC.” I sat in my seat, soaking in the jazzy feeling, and thinking how glad I was to be here. How glad I was to be at RPI, in this incredible world-class concert hall, experiencing something special with hundreds of my friends, peers, professors, and administrators. And, despite the fact that there were still underlying worries—finals to be studied for, next spring’s tuition to be paid, tension with the administration, and any number of things—inside EMPAC, for just a few hours, there was an incredible sense of satisfaction and unity.