Trying To Get To You

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Ecstasy of Aretha's Live at the Fillmore West

In February of 1971, Aretha Franklin played Bill Graham’s fabled Fillmore West auditorium in San Francisco. Touring behind the great Spirit In The Dark, Aretha was nervous to be playing in front of, as she called them, the “flower children”; the fans of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish. She needn’t have worried. Aretha’s talent was at an higher level than the San Francisco bands she thought she was competing with. Atlantic recorded the shows, and from them came the epochal Live at the Fillmore West, released in the spring of 1971.

Live at the Fillmore West is on very few lists of “Greatest Live Albums Of All Time.” It’s understandable to an extent; the first side of the album is significantly flawed, with questionable song selections (“Eleanor Rigby,” Bread’s “Make It With You,” Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With”) that are obvious attempts to play to the sentiments and musical sensibilities of the crowd. Despite being the Queen, Aretha’s insecurities are legendary – and the first half of the album features them all. The songs all work to a degree – but that’s because Aretha has the gift of being able to make almost any song sound good.

“Don’t Play That Song” begins side two, and it’s clear as the Bernard Purdie’s drums crash in, that this is a different experience altogether than what we’ve heard so far. The crowd roars upon hearing the first familiar notes from Aretha’s Fender Rhodes. She is no longer trying to meet the audience on their turf. Instead, she envelops the audience in the transcendent power of her music. The tempo is hard and fast; Purdie pushes the band, the horns swing and Jerry Jemott’s walking bass lines are a thing of beauty. The real stuff has arrived.

“Does anybody here feel like hearing the blues,” Aretha asks before going into a titanic version of “Dr. Feelgood.” The crowd roars in affirmation – this is what they’ve been waiting for. “SING IT,” a woman screams, as Aretha begins the song, toying with the phrasing masterfully as she picks out lines at the keyboard. Aretha milks every syllable – drawing out the affirmation, the sensuality and her own overwhelming power. “RIGHT ON GIRL! YOU GOT IT,” a voice shouts – but Aretha doesn’t need their encouragement. She’s in a state of ecstasy – totally out of herself now – and you can hear her and the audience merge into a single being. If you wanted a musical definition of soul, this would be it.

What’s even more ridiculous is that “Dr. Feelgood” isn’t the high point of the album. That would be the monstrous version of “Spirit In The Dark” that she performs with Ray Charles. “I discovered Ray Charles,” Aretha exults as she leads Ray out. It’s clear that Ray isn’t completely familiar with the song – but as he warms up, it doesn’t matter. He finds his place in the song, making up his own lyrics and starting to brag a little. Aretha has him take a solo and as the band begins to percolate behind him – it goes to another level.

“Can you feel the spirit,” Ray asks the crowd repeatedly, and they roar. He toys with the line, bringing the intensity up and down and hearing him, it’s awe-inspiring. The horns play a beautiful riff, the congas groove and the entire band swings. “I gotta find me a woman tonight, because I feel the Spirit,” Ray sings with a laugh, and in that moment, he brings it all back home, combining the pleasures of the flesh with the ecstasies of the spirit, knowing that they are entwined – a knowledge that is the gift of soul music to the world.

“I just want to say before we leave that you have been much more than I could have ever expected,” Aretha says, thanking the audience as begins the finale, a beautiful version of Diana Ross’ “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” She just sings the chorus over and over again, exclaiming her love for the crowd, the horns blaring and Purdie laying down incredible drum fills. The song is a somewhat treacly plea for brotherly harmony, but in the moment, Aretha makes it profound and even possible.

Jerry Wexler, the Atlantic executive who produced both Ray and Aretha, said that when he was at the Fillmore shows and saw Aretha and Ray playing together, he cried like a baby. Live at the Fillmore West is a miraculous document of that moment and of one of the greatest artists of all time (in any medium) at one of her peaks. If you are into knowing what true greatness is, in any medium, buy this album.

Buy the expanded version of Live at the Fillmore West at the Amazon mp3 store

Spirit in the Dark [Reprise with Ray Charles] - Aretha Franklin


Anonymous said...

I was just listening to this record last week. This is an excellent post - makes me want to go back and listen some more.

And to think I found it from your girlfriend's Facebook status update! Happy accident.

Anonymous said...

I purchased this recording originally on 7" reel-to-reel tape decades ago. I also bought vinyl, then a CD; finally mp3s. "Aretha, your royalty check is in, honey..."

Rob said...

Sorry I'm so late commenting, but I just came across this. Great post! I had this record in college in the early 70s and wore the grooves off. Then you couldn't get it on CD for awhile. Finally I found a version on CD, then the Extended version came out recently. I love the extended version (long version of Spirit in the Dark and a bunch of stuff from the other shows of that run), but I must say that the mix is different than the album I knew so well. I like the new mix fine, but kind of miss the mix I'm familiar with. I agree with pretty much everything you wrote, although I'm very fond of Love The One You're With-- she really could take any song and make it amazing. Same with Bridge Over Troubled Water. But I agree it's Side Two that really lifts things way above the norm. The band-- King Curtis I think-- was amazing. And I've always loved hearing the audience reactions-- they just just went wild at all the right spots, something that really surprised Aretha and the band apparently. Anyway, great post about one of my top three albums!

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A Regular Joe said...

Really could not disagree more with your comment about side one and the covers. Gorgeous arrangements. Brilliant performances.

Look for the 4 disk version of this for the whole picture: Don't Fight The Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live At Fillmore West, unfortunately out of print.

In the 60's, when an artist had a hit, everybody else covered it to try to ride the coattails and make some money. I don't see you complaining about the Turtles covering Dylan.

Ike and Tina did amazing covers of the Beatles and other white artists, and many other African American artists did the same with amazing results.

I'm a huge collector of African American music from the early days of recording through the 1970's. I've know some others of my ilk who get upset and disappointed when an artist breaks the stereotype they have been pigeonholed into.

That, I am afraid is what we have here, and it casts a a pointless and crude shadow on one of the greatest live recordings in the canon of African American music