Here's Newsday rock critic Wayne Robins' review of Aretha Franklin's show at the Westbury Music Fair (now NYCB Theatre at Westbury) on June 24, 1991:
ARETHA FRANKLIN is so far beyond having anything to prove that it would be easy to excuse her if she just wanted to go through the motions on stage. When her recordings in 1967 with producer Jerry Wexler fused Franklin's imploring gospel-rooted singing with graceful, muscular rhythm and blues arrangements, they called it soul music. Not for the first time, perhaps, but Aretha became soul's embodiment and definition: Lady Soul.
Like many greats from soul's golden age, Franklin went into eclipse during the disco '70s. Her recording career has undergone a revival during the last decade with Arista Records, in sales, if not in quality. But if Aretha thought the disco days were tough, what does a soul diva do in the '90s, the era of drum machines, dance routines and electronically reprocessed vocals?
Franklin gave the shallow new world a cursory tip in Monday night's show at Westbury Music Fair. When she told the audience that her new album (due out tomorrow) is called "What You See Is What You Sweat," she offered a perceptible "uggh" to go along with her shrug. One new song, "Mary Goes Round," apparently added drum machines to the playing of her otherwise vividly-live soul orchestra. The song was perfectly fitted to that trendy dance-oriented radio format, which could be called Artificial Contemporary. Onstage, it died.
Franklin also gave a perfunctory reading to Sly Stone's "Everyday People," which she covers on the new album. Franklin likes to sing words: The syllables of Sly's song ("and so on and so on and scooby-dooby-doo-bee. . .") seemed to make her uncomfortable.
But there was higher ground for Franklin, revisiting her soul hits Monday night. It wasn't just because her old songs are old and familiar; it's because they are brilliantly written, direct, cathartic evocations of primary emotions.
Franklin did not try to rush her golden hits through truncated medleys. She gave each song she performed room to resonate, to find its climax. After opening with two perfunctory songs ("Shine the Light" - please), she got down to business with "Think" as call-and-response shouts of "free-dom" filled the theater.
She found something new and sweet in "Spanish Harlem," the Ben E. King song she had first covered in 1971. Though Franklin must have sung "A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like)" ten thousand times over the years since 1967, her eyelids still got heavy communicating the unabashed thankfulness in the song.
Her reading of "I Never Loved A Man" gave full vent to the song's lustiness; "Respect" was every bit the demand, promise, and threat that made it the most profound soul song ever recorded.
By contrast, even Franklin's best song of the 1980s, "Freeway of Love" was a little light-in-the-loafers. (I've always figured you got to the "Freeway of Love" by exiting the "Expressway To Your Heart"). While Franklin is certainly no oldies act, neither can her new or recent material galvanize an audience (much less a nation) the way her 1960s hits did. So she's a little bit stuck in the middle, but Franklin didn't look trapped. In fact, she seemed downright cozy.