Live At The Fillmore West, originally released in 1971, finds Aretha Franklin at the height of her vocal and commercial power. This live album was culled from three concerts at the Fillmore West in early March 1971, with the 2006 CD release containing the original album and a bonus disc of alternate and unused songs.
If you are not acquainted with the Queen of Soul or have not looked beyond her hits, Live At The Fillmore West will be a treat. Aretha, backed by King Curtis and The Kingpins, Billy Preston and The Sweethearts Of Soul, creates one of the classic live albums of all time.
Franklin begins the concert with her signature song “Respect.” King Curtis and The Kingpins immediately set the groove and establish that this will be no ordinary performance, and her voice is just pure American soul music at its best. A real treat is Aretha’s version of Stephen Stills’ hit “Love The One You’re With.” Billy Preston and the The Kingpins’ brass section lead the way as Aretha Franklin gives a smooth vocal performance.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Eleanor Rigby” are part of the heart of this album. Few singers can take a signature song and make it their own; “Bridge Over Troubled Water” has been recorded thousands of times, for example, but there is no performance quite like this one. Aretha Franklin’s emphasis on certain words and her constantly building vocal power make this a unique performance. Paul Simon called this the best performance of his song. “Eleanor Rigby” becomes another Aretha tour de force as the tempo is sped up and the basic phrasing is moved over to a rhythm and blues foundation.
The audience is allowed to catch their collective breath as Aretha cuts back on the energy. “Make It With You” is pure 1970s pop excess and even Franklin can only make the song palpable. “Don’t Play That Song” is another pure pop song that doesn’t quite work. Then, “Dr. Feelgood” brings the energy back to the concert. This old blues standard is extended to nine minutes. Billy Preston keeps to the basic melody with brass improvisations cutting in and out. Franklin’s voice then is added as a counterpoint to the brass, culminating in some vocal improvisation and a preaching style of singing that is all but gone from the music scene nowadays.
“Spirit In The Dark” shows how a forgotten song in the catalog can shine when performed live. Later, on “Spirit in the Dark (reprise),” Ray Charles joins Aretha on stage for this second version of the song. It is interesting to hear the exchange of vocals as Ray takes on the song, but it turns out to be just a warm up as the song becomes a vehicle for a Ray Charles and King Curtis jam. The 20 minutes flies by.
The concert closes with “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” This was a typical concert closer in 1971, and while Aretha gives a credible performance the song is dated and overdone.
The bonus disc contains 13 songs. Nine of the songs are just different takes from those presented on the concert disc. As for the rest, “Call Me” is a sedate version of this hit not in sync with the rest of the show, “Mixed-Up Girl is very raw and not on a par with the best material here, “You’re All I Need To Get By” never really takes off and “Share Your Love With Me” is the only good highlight, a subtle rendition of this old song. Franklin’s vocals are smooth as butter and it would have made a good inclusion on the concert disc.
Thirty-six years have passed since Aretha Franklin performed at the Fillmore West and the original release of this album. The Fillmore, Ray Charles, Billy Preston and King Curtis are all gone. Live At The Fillmore West remains as a rare concert album that stands the test of time, and this performance by Aretha Franklin is a necessity for any music fan.