Review: RESPECT – A Tribute to Aretha Franklin with the Mary Louise Lee Orchestra

MLL 3

By Kristi Andrus, guest blogger

I typically pick the shows I want to see to review. That’s my entire process, nothing complicated, just personal preference.  Occasionally, however, my process is unintentionally complicated, like for instance, when the show I pick is performed by a local legend who is paying tribute to a national treasure. Oh, and did I mention she’s married to Denver’s mayor?

I went to Saturday night’s sold-out show Respect: A Tribute to Aretha Franklin with the Mary Louise Lee Orchestra knowing it would be a cool night out, but it was way more mellow and vibey and fun than I even expected.

Was it the red dress? The red shoes? The 13-piece orchestra? The gravelly infectious vocals? The selfie with my brother and the mayor? Or something else?

Let’s dissect the night. Here’s a look at the songs, the lyrics, and the moments that stood out.

But first, the facts:

Denver First Lady Mary Louise Lee (MLL) of Mary Louise Lee Band (MLLB) has incredible range, perfect pitch, is a blend of liveliness, sultriness, confidence, good energy, and a warm hug. She’s a Denver institution married to a Denver institution. She commands the stage, works the room, and knows when it’s time to take off her shoes, symbolizing to the audience that it’s also time to party.

Now, the rundown: (Try to sing everything in italics if you will).

The band was dressed head to toe in black with red accents, ties for the men, shoes for the women. MLL was wearing a red dress and red shoes and comfortable in the spotlight. She was welcoming and ready, her band equally ready to rock.

MLLB kicked off the night with 1) Rock Steady, a little swaying booty shake appropriate for the lyrics “Just move your hips with a feeling from side to side” that set the tone for the night – casual, but captivating.

Next up, 2) Freeway of Love got the crowd engaged right away “So jump right in, it ain’t no sin, take a ride in my machine”.

MLL told a cute story about how as a little girl of 7-ish she sang Aretha Franklin songs long before she knew what the lyrics meant.

In 3) Baby I Love You, she belted “If you feel you wanna kiss me, Go right ahead I don’t mind, All you got to do is snap your fingers, And I’ll come a runnin, I ain’t lyin’.” Maybe not appropriate for the under 15 set, but the audience loved it just the same.

By song 4) I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), both MLL and the crowd were worked up and the lyrics “You’re a no good heart breaker, You’re a liar and you’re a cheat” provoked cheers and sneers. When she hit her sweet spots, the band made the music appreciation face. You know the one I’m talking about? Does that universal expression have a name?

The next song 5) I Say A Little Prayer was my fave so far, not only for the performance – those deep notes and that high pitch – but also because I love it in that movie. How many of you recall the scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding where Rupert Everett sings to Julia Roberts and the entire table, then restaurant joins in? Classic cinema. Classic song. “The moment I wake up, Before I put on my makeup (makeup), I say a little (prayer for you).”

After that, she sang “Baby baby, sweet baby, There’s something that I just got to say” and everyone related to the lyrics and the swingy beat of 6) Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby).

Greatest hit 7) Call Me brought the energy down a bit, in a real, every day, nostalgia way. “I love you (I love you), And I love you (I love you), And I love you too (and I love you).” My takeaway? Just be where you are, deeply invested in your own life, and love who you love. The violin solo by Monique Brooks-Roberts was particularly evocative.

If you haven’t heard 8) George Michael & Aretha Franklin’s I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) in a while, do yourself a favor and listen to the feel-good song again soon. Vocalist Christopher Razor joined her in Michael’s role and was fantastic. When the river was deep, I didn’t falter, When the mountain was high, I still believed, When the valley was low, it didn’t stop me, no no, I knew you were waiting, I knew you were waiting for me.” MLL imagined Franklin and Michael in heaven singing and the crowd sent a little prayer-cheer upstairs.

9) Ain’t No Way Ain’t no way, For me to love you, If you won’t let me, It ain’t no way, For me to give you all you need, If you won’t let me give all of me” was a pleading display of controlled emotions and expressive storytelling. Cissy Houston, Whitney Houston’s mom, sang backup on the original and backup singer Angela Curington did her proud on Saturday night. Speaking of Whitney Houston, in addition to the Aretha Franklin tribute, MLLB is also known for their Whitney Houston and Tina Turner tributes. Look for a Diana Ross tribute next.

10) Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do) was one of MLL’s faves and the sax soloist Tony Exum Jr. owned it. Why did you have to decide, You had to set me free?”

LTAC is a gorgeous venue, not a bad seat, the stage is impressive but accessible, and the backgrounds were simple, bold magentas, corals, purples and pinks, an ombre fade from top to bottom. I appreciate how many patrons are in the audience because the lobby feels a little like a reunion, and in fact, the couple I sat next to has been sharing concert moments since they first enjoyed the Doobie Brothers over 30 years ago.

After the break, MLL opened with a sultry 11) (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman which got a lot of “oh yeahs!” from the audience, mostly men I noticed, and everyone sang along  “Cause you make me feel, You make me feel, You make me feel like, A natural woman (woman).” Yes even the men joined in.

Then a keyboard solo by Thomas Capek in 12) Bridge Over Troubled Water the Simon & Garfunkel classic “Just like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down” showcased all the vocalists of the band which started in 2006 and focuses on pop, rock, soul, and blues – so many of the genres that overlap with Franklin’s.

When the next song started, MLL sat down for the first time, on a stool for 13) Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business) and then moved into the crowd to “better explain” it I tell you girls I dig you but I just don’t have time, To sit and chit and sit and chit-chat and smile, Don’t send me no doctor, Fillin’ me up with all of those pills, I got me a man named Doctor Feelgood,” before making a loop around the lower level while Robert Croft rocked the guitar. I noticed a little more gravel, a little more swagger, and that long note – whoa.

With three songs left, 14) Something He Can Feel was another sing-along-anthem. I remember En Vogue’s remake from 1992 and MLL’s version was more PG but still very sexy. Oh, many say, That I’m too young (to let you know), To let you know just just where I’m coming from”.

During 15) Think MLL removed her “one hour and 15-minute shoes”. I didn’t check the time, but I sympathized. She and the band divided the crowd into four sections for a sing-off of the chorus Oh, freedom (freedom), freedom (freedom), Oh, freedom, yeah, freedom, Freedom (freedom), oh oh freedom (freedom), Freedom, oh freedom.” I was absolutely no help to my section and the balcony ran away with it anyway, although the middle section did give them a run for their money. I sing like Cameron Diaz in the aforementioned movie, but I do love songs that sound vintage and feel current, so what I lacked in harmony, I made up for in enthusiasm.

Last song of the night was 16) Chain of Fools Do I even need to quote the lyrics? I’m sure the refrain is already stuck in your head just hearing the title. Another delightful sax solo by talented Tony Exum Jr. Chain, chain, chain, (Chain, chain, chain), Chain, chain, chain, (Chain, chain, chain), Chain, chain, chain, (Chain, chain, chain), Chain of fools” which received a standing ovation. MLL loves her audience and they love her. They demanded an encore and she expected it.

Last song of the night 17) Respect “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” which brought down the house. During the crowd favorite, she gave each band member a moment and his/her due. I love bands who love each other, who have a great time performing together, who appreciate what each member contributes, and who are genuinely happy and happy for each other. When MLL does her thing, MLLB knows it. When MLLB does their thing, MLL knows it. There were a lot of head nods, finger points, knowing smiles, and wordless communication throughout the night. There was a lot of mutual respect on stage too. “All I’m askin’, Is for a little respect when you get home (just a little bit), Hey baby (just a little bit) when you get home, (Just a little bit) mister (just a little bit)”.

MLL/MLLB definitely earned my respect. It was a great night out. Check out MLLB’s facebook page for their next show and check out LTAC’s calendar to purchase tickets to their next show too.

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