Aretha Franklin likely looked down on the Lincoln Theatre on Saturday night, listened, and then smiled as the Wexner Center for the Arts presented “Say A Little Prayer: An Aretha Franklin Celebration.” A notorious perfectionist, Lady Soul surely would have thanked the Center for giving Sharon Udoh — who performs as Counterfeit Madison — free-reign to pay tribute with the concert.
With vision, passion, and organizational skill, Udoh presented a two hour show that will be remembered by the sold-out house for years to come.
The Cincinnati native was born to Nigerian parents and for her first 18 years knew only the gospel music she performed in church. Franklin, too, grew up singing in church, a similarity that gave Udoh an inside track on her music.
Saturday night, Counterfeit Madison tapped that affinity. More importantly, she took Franklin’s inspiration — as singer, activist, and singular artist — to shape a program that allowed her own unique talent to take flight. Udoh designed the program with the help of producer Moxy Martinez, arranged the material, and led the nearly-20 musicians and performers.
The show was nothing like a predictable rehash of Franklin’s hits. Udoh chose out-of-the-way material from her biggest years in the ‘60s as well as isolated classics from the ‘80s. She passed on “Respect” for its slow-burning blues B-side, “Dr. Feelgood”; her first Atlantic single “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” for its unforgettable B-side “Do Right Woman — Do Right Man.” She highlighted the fine funk of ‘80s tunes including “Jump To It” and “Freeway Of Love.”
Udoh, with her tenor range, has confessed to feeling challenged by Franklin’s extended soprano range. Saturday night she adapted uncommonly well. Opening with “Day Dreaming,” Udoh wrapped a tawny phrasing around the song’s lyrics, making the song her own. Her arrangement for “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” took ownership with her conception as it opened with a string trio. She had her Nina Simone moment when she reinterpreted Franklin’s cover of the Beatles’ “Fool On The Hill” and added a simple, aching piano part at the end. She proved a master of pop singing ending the show with Bacharach and David’s brilliant “I Say A Little Prayer.”
Significantly — and, perhaps, reflecting Franklin’s humility — she handed the spotlight to her backing singers as often as she took it herself. With Udoh’s support all five brought their own voice to Franklin’s catalogue and they provided many of the evening’s highpoints.
Karen Marie rode the solid, funky groove laid down by the crack band for “Rock Steady.” Debra James Tucker shook the hall with her bluesy reading of “Chain Of Fools.” Amber Knicole delivered “Jump To It” with a high-flying ‘80s soul style that recalled Teena Marie. Paisha Thomas lit the hall with her not-unlike Aretha reading of the great blues “Dr. Feelgood” and a firm grasp on the tune’s explosive dynamics.
K. Daniel brought the house down twice with his electrifying performance of “Think” and later with “The Night Time Is The Right Time,” during which Udoh was so beside herself she kept jumping off her piano seat and yelling encouragement.
LuSter Singleton served as MC, entertaining between songs for a time but soon becoming unnecessary. Drag queen Mikayla Denise, Miss Gay Ohio 2018, lip-synced as Knicole sang “Freeway Of Love” with her back to the audience adding a bit of comic relief.
If there were quibbles, this reviewer would have loved to hear Aretha’s early Columbia recordings of jazz and blues standards.