Monday, October 7, 2019
Aretha Live at Fillmore West - Aretha Franklin
Atlantic SD 7205
This was the first Aretha Franklin album that I owned. I bought it as a teenager in the used record store that briefly existed in my suburban home town. It was a small enough store that I could go through all the records in the pop music bins which is how I noticed it. My taste in soul back then was more Motown than Atlantic. I was familiar with Franklin's big hits but I was not yet a fan. This album totally changed that, but I originally bought it primarily because it was recorded at the Fillmore which I was obsessed with at the time. It is still my favorite of Franklin's live albums. It was re-released in a greatly expanded version on CD covering all three of her nights at the auditorium including King Curtis' performances. I'm sure it is wonderful but I'm happy with this smaller sampling. It is a flawless album, over forty-five minutes of greatness. The vinyl version kicks off with her explosive performance of "Respect" taken at a much faster pace than her classic single. It is an amazingly energetic performance that blows me away every time I hear it. At the end of the song Franklin promises the audience that they will enjoy her show as much as any they have ever seen. It is a bold promise but I think she delivered. She changes pace with Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With" which she slows down and makes sound like a gospel song. It is a brilliant interpretation that I greatly prefer to Stills' own version. She also makes Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" sound like a hymn. She sings it with such feeling and passion, she absolutely slays me. I like the original but it sounds stilted and phony in comparison. The most remarkable cover on the album is her uptempo performance of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby." Supported by propulsive back up vocals from the Sweethearts of Soul, Franklin utterly transforms the song into an exciting and upbeat workout. Curiously she sings the song in the first person which makes it seem more personal. I think the Beatles' melancholy version is more suitable for the lyrics, but Franklin's cover is a lot more fun. Her biggest challenge on the record is taking on David Gates' sappy "Make It With You." I've always loathed the original single by Bread. It is a testament to her genius that she makes this lightweight song seem powerful and meaningful with her heartfelt performance. Side one concludes with a lively version of "Don't Play That Song" which was a hit for Ben E. King in 1962. Franklin covered it on her album "Spirit in the Dark" in 1970. I am a fan of King and like his version, but when Franklin covers a song, it becomes hers. Side one is devoted to showing the hippies that she can beat them at their own game with her absolute dominance of some of their classic hits. Side two showcases her own music. It opens with her and Ted White's "Dr. Feelgood." It is a slow, smoldering blues that gradually builds in strength leading to some explosive vocal pyrotechnics that take my breath away. It is a sensual song but at the end she takes the audience to church with incredible spirit. Which is an appropriate segue for her performance of "Spirit in the Dark" which is her spiritual ode to the power of music. It is an incredibly compelling performance and just when you think it can't get any better than this, she brings out Ray Charles, literally her only peer in soul singing. What a thrill it must have been for the audience to see the King and Queen of Soul together on that stage. Charles slows down the tempo for a funky interpretation of the song featuring a dazzling call and response with Franklin. Then Charles takes Franklin's place at the electric piano and delivers a smoking piano solo that gets me bopping. Charles resumes singing and rouses the crowd with his mesmerizing gospel style vocal. At the end of the song Franklin proclaims him to be "the Reverend Righteous Ray" to which I can only reply "Amen!" When I heard this song as a teenager it instantly converted me into a fan of soul music. I had never heard anything like it and it still thrills me all these years later. This album is a must buy just for that song alone. The record comes back to earth to conclude with her robust vocal on Ashford and Simpson's "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" which had been a hit for Diana Ross the year before and I suspect she picked it just to show Ross who is the boss. What a show! The band is excellent and Franklin is inspired. I wish I could have been there. This is one of my favorite live albums. It has so much feeling and atmosphere, it is everything a good live album should be. I consider it one of her essential recordings. It fully displays her unparalleled skill as an interpreter and the boundless expressiveness of her voice. Recommended to fans of Ray Charles, her only rival when it comes to the soulful interpretation of pop music.