Aretha Franklin: Aretha Live at Fillmore West

ON THIS DATE (41 YEARS AGO)
May 19, 1971 – Aretha Franklin: Aretha Live at Fillmore West is released.
# ALL THINGS MUSIC PLUS+ 4.5/5
# Allmusic 4.5/5 stars
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
Aretha Live at Fillmore West is a gold-certified album by Aretha Franklin, released on this date in May, 1971. It reached #1 on Billboard’s R&B Albums chart and #7 on the the Billboard Top LP’s chart.  It was recorded live at Fillmore West, San Francisco, California on March 5 and 7, 1971.
When Aretha Franklin recorded 1971’s Aretha Live at Fillmore West, she was backed by a group of veteran session musicians on a mix of popular interpretations along with some of her trademark numbers. Opening with Otis Redding’s “Respect,” Franklin made Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With” her own with the help of Billy Preston’s joyous organ playing while Bread’s saccharine “Make It With You” was injected with a healthy shot of sexy sassiness.
Aretha Franklin’s underrated piano playing and a healthy display of her gospel roots make Fillmore one of the more special recordings in Lady Soul’s vast canon. Franklin’s skill on the eighty-eights particularly shines on her swinging treatment of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and the jubilant “Don’t Play That Song.” Franklin also plays electric piano on “Dr. Feelgood,” and from this point on she turns Bill Graham’s hall into a Baptist church. Between the call-and-response of her background singers and King Curtis’ skillful band-leading/saxophone playing, Franklin’s high point came when she brought Ray Charles out for the reprise of the testimonial “Spirit In The Dark” followed by the uplifting “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”
ORIGINAL ROLLING STONE REVIEW
Aretha Franklin is the queen of secular gospel music. She was at the Apollo last night, jumping up from her piano bench, arms raised and shouting, strutting around the stage or dancing in a burst of quick steps, whipping the audience into an ecstatic frenzy. Spirit in the dark. “Dr. Feelgood,” tagged with a moaning, shouting, testifying exchange between Aretha, the audience, the band and a robust backing chorus called the Sweethearts of Soul, became even more clearly a gospel–of the bedroom rather than the church.
Instead of taking a gospel song and substituting “my man” for “sweet Jesus,” as so many others have done. Aretha infuses R&B with pure gospel feeling, acknowledges the joys or pains of people’s lives and transforms these emotions by exalting them. The process of this transformation is evident on stage: Aretha’s radiance, the confidence and perfection of her impulses, the gestures, sighs, croons that she uses for soulful punctuation, her own complete involvement and the effortless control of the audience.
Trying to convey this stage experience on record is risky at best. Too often, songs that seem stunningly good in the moment of their delivery become merely nice when cut from the atmosphere that helped create them. Spontaneity preserved can be deadly. When Aretha says, “I promise you when you leave here you will have enjoyed this show as much as any that you’ve ever had an occasion to see” on stage, you don’t really want to have to think about the discomfort of her language in the comfort of your living room. Aretha in her infinite magic can convince you there’s beauty in a mediocre song–she will put it there.
Unfortunately, the spell is considerably weakened on record–you begin to get picky about the horns and decide you don’t really like the arrangement and think, “What is this ‘rose in a fisted glove’ bullshit anyway?”–things that wouldn’t have bothered you in her presence–and you’ve ruined it. Much of the first side of Live at Fillmore West suffers in this way. “Don’t Play That Song” sounds stiff and strained in a speeded-up concert version and the Franklin treatment of “Eleanor Rigby,” also unpleasantly jumpy here, has by now worn very thin. Even the obligatory opener, “Respect,” has lost a great deal of its freshness and impact and the comfortable “experiment” with Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” is quite awful.
In spite of all this and the fact that I find live albums almost universally unbearable, Aretha Live at Fillmore West is, finally, irresistible, simply because when Aretha’s good she’s truly inspired. There’s brilliance even in her weak moments, but her high points are like lightning bolts–stunning enough to make you forgive and forget her lesser efforts. “Make It With You” falls somewhere in between here–it’s too lightweight to be great–but it’s full of tasty, typically Aretha, touches (the way she shouts “No!–you don’t know me well” is a delight) and both the orchestra and chorus are superb. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is one of those transformations, much better than the single version, which was too heavily contrived. Here Aretha soars and bends the phrases to suit her feeling, making the song vibrant and thrilling.
But it’s side two that holds the essence of Aretha Franklin and the meat of the album. Even with my serious reservations about the interplay with Ray Charles, I find this one of the two or three most successful, sustained and vital pieces of live performance on record. “Do you feel like hearin’ the blues?” Aretha asks, and takes us right into “Dr. Feelgood,” brimming with every funky, suggestive technique in her command, all used to maximum effect. The unbelievable gospel exchange that follows without pause–a form she used with variations at the Apollo and exciting enough here to justify the record all by itself- provides the perfect link with “Spirit in the Dark”–again, not a great song but such a pleasure that “greatness” doesn’t really matter.
Aretha goes off and returns for an encore/reprise with Ray Charles but I have to say I find much of this more than eight-minute cut disappointing. Really. Another one of those great expectations problems, I suppose. Charles at electric piano is full of energies that he doesn’t quite get into in his ad-lib singing here. The exchange between Ray and Aretha is electric in flashes but somehow too determined and self-conscious. This is just not the thunder of the gods I had hoped for.
Clearly, a major criterion for an in-concert LP should be its spontaneity and realness–the degree to which it has captured the spirit of the performance–and this is one of the strongest qualities of Live at Fillmore West. The audience becomes nearly as crucial as the performer and, although I think I’ll be moved to some sort of minor violence if I hear someone scream “Right on!” again, the audience here is a joy. Especially on “Dr. Feelgood,” so ripe for audience response, the crowd is hanging on Aretha’s every nuance, joining in for key lines and shouting encouragement. On the album’s final cut, a strongly felt snatch of Diana Ross’ song “Reach Out And Touch,” Aretha is one with the people, her voice breaking dramatically above their cries. Listen to the people and you get a sense of what this Queen is all about.
Good production on top of this seems almost a luxury, and here it’s very good. Although I believe the second side–”Dr. Feelgood,” “Spirit in the Dark,” “Reach Out”–was lifted as a whole from one concert (with the two sections of “Spirit” carefully joined), side one has been so well spliced together that it too sounds like a continuous run of songs. Occasional raw blasts from the horns aside, the orchestra–King Curtis and the Kingpins supplemented by the Memphis Horns and Billy Preston–is fine throughout, with guitarist Cornell Dupree, Jerry Jemmott on bass, Preston on organ and leader/saxophonist King Curtis all standing out particularly strong, and drummer Bernard Purdie towering over it all with incredible power.
It’s hard to evaluate Live at Fillmore West as a whole because its pieces are of such varying quality. Producers Wexler and Mardin have captured Aretha in concert more accurately and with more depth than I could have expected but they’ve packed the gems with more dreck than one can easily ignore. This may not make it the most satisfying prize package around but in the end it’s just too valuable to pass up. (RS 87)
~ VINCE ALETTI (July 22, 1971)
TRACKS:
Side one
“Respect” – 3:53
“Love The One You’re With” – 4:15
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” – 5:55
“Eleanor Rigby” – 2:33
“Make It With You” – 4:33
“Don’t Play That Song” – 3:16
Side two
“Dr. Feelgood” – 7:06
“Spirit In The Dark” – 5:33
“Spirit In The Dark (Reprise With Ray Charles)” – 8:53
“Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” – 2:35
Don’t Fight The Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live At Fillmore West
DISC 1
“Intro”
“Knock on Wood” – The Memphis Horns
“Whole Lotta Love” – King Curtis
“Them Changes” – King Curtis
“A Whiter Shade of Pale” – King Curtis
“My Sweet Lord” – Billy Preston
“Ode to Billie Joe” – King Curtis
“Mr. Bojangles” – King Curtis
“Soul Serenade” – King Curtis
“Memphis Soul Stew” – King Curtis
“Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” – King Curtis
“Respect” – Aretha Franklin
“Call Me” – Aretha Franklin
“Mixed-Up Girl” – Aretha Franklin
“Love the One You’re With” – Aretha Franklin
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” – Aretha Franklin
“Eleanor Rigby” – Aretha Franklin
“Make it with You” – Aretha Franklin
“Don’t Play that Song” – Aretha Franklin
DISC 2
“You’re All I Need to Get By” – Aretha Franklin
“Dr. Feelgood” – Aretha Franklin
“Spirit in the Dark” – Aretha Franklin
“Spirit in the Dark (Reprise)” – Aretha Franklin
“Knock on Wood” – The Memphis Horns
“Them Changes” – King Curtis
“Whole Lotta Love” – King Curtis
“A Whiter Shade of Pale” – King Curtis
“I Stand Accused” – King Curtis
“Soul Serenade” – King Curtis
“Memphis Soul Stew” – King Curtis
“Respect” – Aretha Franklin
“Call Me” – Aretha Franklin
“Love the One You’re with” – Aretha Franklin
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” – Aretha Franklin
DISC 3
“Share Your Love With Me” – Aretha Franklin
“Eleanor Rigby” – Aretha Franklin
“Make It With You” – Aretha Franklin
“You’re All I Need to Get By” – Aretha Franklin
“Don’t Play That Song” – Aretha Franklin
“Dr. Feelgood” – Aretha Franklin
“Spirit in the Dark” – Aretha Franklin
“Spirit in the Dark (Reprise)” – Aretha Franklin
“Knock On Wood” – The Memphis Horns
“Them Changes” – King Curtis
“A Whiter Shade of Pale” – King Curtis
“Ode To Billie Joe” – King Curtis
“Soul Serenade” – King Curtis
“Memphis Soul Stew” – King Curtis
DISC 4
“Respect” – Aretha Franklin
“Call Me” – Aretha Franklin
“Love the One You’re With” – Aretha Franklin
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” – Aretha Franklin
“Share Your Love With Me” – Aretha Franklin
“Eleanor Rigby” – Aretha Franklin
“Make It With You” – Aretha Franklin
“Don’t Play That Song” – Aretha Franklin
“You’re All I Need to Get By” – Aretha Franklin
“Dr. Feelgood” – Aretha Franklin
“Spirit in the Dark” – Aretha Franklin
“Spirit in the Dark (Reprise)” – Aretha Franklin with Ray Charles
“Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” – Aretha Franklin

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