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A trio of performances 

Aretha Franklin Robinson Center Music Hall Nov. 16 Franklin doesn’t fail Aretha Franklin's “A Presidential Celebration” performance at Robinson Center came wrapped in lots of detail and context. It was Aretha — with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, and her own band, and a quintet of young, lithe dancers, and a four-pack of back-up singers — as a centerpiece attraction early in Clinton Presidential Center Celebration week, with guests from around the world, including Rev. Jesse Jackson and scads of media watching and listening. Forget all that. The 2,500 or so in attendance surely did, or at least left it all in their peripheral vision, keeping a collective focus strictly on one woman with one amazing voice. Aretha Franklin's pipes — not her looks, style, song choices or even her “soul” — qualified her to be the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At 62, she's not the vocal virtuoso she was 30 years ago, but the erosion is not significant, even with the case of laryngitis Franklin said she was fighting. She did tell the crowd, “If you don't hear the top note, just imagine,” but nobody seemed disappointed as she ripped through a 75-minute set that featured most of her huge hits packed into the first 25 minutes, including “A Natural Woman,” “Think,” “Respect,” “Chain of Fools” and “Get It Right.” When she strolled off the stage to great applause, it was natural to think, “Was that it? What else is left for her to play?” Well, for one thing, there was the piano. Some of the evening's most special moments came as Franklin accompanied herself with no other instrumentation. A gospel rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was particularly striking. In fact, gospel was as prevalent as soul throughout the night. There were also some rocking moments. Franklin proved that not all her glory is rooted in the late ’60s, with rousing versions of “Freeway of Love” from her hit 1985 album, “Who's Zoomin' Who?,” and “So Damn Happy,” the title cut from her 2003 release. The ASO opened with a crisp 30-minute set that was equal parts fun and musically impressive. After Franklin hit the stage, the Symphony was only tangentially involved — ranging from providing prominent backing instrumentation on some songs to none at all on others. And there wasn't much tangible connection to the Clinton library festivities either. Franklin didn't get into the subject between songs; only when Mayor Jim Dailey gave her the key to the city after her show did the matter surface. — By Kelley Bass Better Than Ezra, North Mississippi Allstars Riverfest Amphitheater Nov. 17 Just right for partying Apparently, the North Mississippi Allstars have a solid fan base in central Arkansas, but with a zillion out-of-towners converged on the River Market it’s hard to know who’s who. Whether they were local or not, plenty of people made a move for the exit as soon as the Allstars’ set ended. To be fair, this may have had less to do with a lack of interest in headliners Better Than Ezra than the fact that there were no concessions at all in the park. The pairing of cold beer and loud rock music is well established, so many fans may have struck out for wetter pastures. When BTE, the rootsy New Orleans modern rock band, took the stage the crowd watching them was an interesting mix. Their solid fan base packed the pit in front of the stage, so the “Ezralites” got an intimately raucous show. The “reserved” seating was a quarter full of somewhat reserved people, and the lawn filled slowly as curious out-of-towners and fireworks fans trickled in. At mid-show, ebullient front man Kevin Griffin took umbrage to this stratified situation and invited those standing in the back to shuffle on down into the blue seats. Better Than Ezra is a good-time party band that plays straight-up guitar-driven rock music with nice catchy hooks and plenty of attitude. They did a great job at entertaining the considerable portion of the crowd who only knew the MTV hit “Good” from a few years back, as well as the curious “Better Than Who?” crowd that either showed up to see what the fuss was about or for the fireworks display. Special kudos go to Chris King and Sticky Fingerz for producing this great and free addition to the big Clinton Week hoopla. Following BTE, the Osborne family’s Biggest Fireworks Display Ever was impressive, though they’ve probably done displays as big and impressive for Riverfest. Even so, Little Rock felt like the center of the universe for a while, and we should all be grateful for the attention and the fun. — By Tim Jones Trans-Siberian Orchestra Alltel Arena Nov. 19 True Christmas magic Upon hearing the newest CD from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “The Lost Christmas Eve,” I found it to be an oddball mish-mash of King Crimson and Spinal Tap performing every cliche ever contrived about the “magic” of Christmas. In short, I went to this concert with a burden of skepticism that wasn’t altogether fair to the band, er, orchestra. Sorry, but I reserve the right to be a Scrooge, at least until the last of the Thanksgiving turkey is eaten. They sold me. With an unlikely combination of earnest narrative, power-chorded hard-rock interpretations of TSO originals and holiday classics, and tightly scripted classical arrangements, they managed to be both ’70s throwbacks and creative visionaries, with immediately likeable results. In a (chest)nutshell, TSO is an overblown marriage of art-rock and Broadway, with a light show to rival Pink Floyd. The lengthy show began with “Christmas Eve and Other Stories,” the first TSO Christmas album (1996), and the second part featured selections ranging from songs from “The Lost Christmas Eve,” incorporated with Liszt, Mozart, and Beethoven. The lead guitarist and musical conductor for this touring group (there are two TSOs presently on tour) is Al Pitrelli, whose history includes stints with Alice Cooper, Asia, Michael Bolton, Blue Oyster Cult and Megadeth, among others. Twenty other musicians joined Pitrelli: local string players courtesy of our own ASO, six excellent lead singers, and the hard-rocking core of the group. The program ranged from poetic narratives and sentimental ballads to Beethoven’s Ninth played with bombastic heavy-metal riffs. If you are a fan of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Moody Blues, Yes and the like, TSO’s music would stand on its own without the flashy production. If you think that prog-rock is a load of overreaching excess, you would most likely pass the same judgment on TSO, but the music was only half of the show. In 25 years of seeing major rock shows, I have never witnessed a light show like this one. For starters, the arena was in a “theater” configuration, so the stage was situated further toward the middle, giving people in the back of the arena a closer-than-typical view. TSO uses an enormous state-of-the-art array of computerized moving lights, lasers pulsing in geometrical patterns, heavy smoke, and room-heating pyrotechnics. Words fail here; you just had to be there. If there is a Grammy award for lighting, designer Brian Hartley and operator Dan Cassar deserve a truckload of them. It was that good. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert was a near sellout with 3,919 people in attendance. As its reputation grows and the fans continue to snatch up tickets, central Arkansas can look forward to having them back again for the holiday season next year. The TSO experience may not replace going to “The Nutcracker” for everybody, but next year I’m taking the kids, even before Thanksgiving. — By Tim Jones
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