LIVE from Your Speakers: Aretha Franklin, LIVE AT FILLMORE WEST

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Losing Aretha Franklin recently was a gut-punch, but it did serve the purpose of bringing listeners back to her catalog, to partake of her lifetime of soul, blues, R&B and gospel. In her live discography, LIVE AT FILLMORE WEST was perhaps second only to her 1972 gospel record AMAZING GRACE in terms of power, and that was likely due to the material on that record (all gospel songs) and the locale of the recording (the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, in Los Angeles). Franklin was, after all, the daughter of a Baptist preacher, and had a lifelong affinity with the music of the church.

LIVE AT FILLMORE WEST was recorded in 1971 at what might be termed “hippie church,” Bill Graham’s original San Francisco performance venue, which had hosted shows by acts as diverse as the Grateful Dead, Ornette Coleman, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Miles Davis. Franklin also played a number of what might be termed “hippie hymns” — songs like the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Steven Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

It’s what she did with those and other songs that makes LIVE AT FILLMORE WEST such a lasting, resonant concert document. First of all, “Eleanor Rigby” is unrecognizable; Franklin takes away all the baroque flourishes, picks up the tempo and reinvents the track, turning it from a sullen ballad to a souped-up soul stirrer. She takes “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to church, squeezing every bit of gospel out of the searching Paul Simon lyric. She also steps up the pace and spikes up the horns in her own (and Otis Redding’s) “Respect,” and you find yourself racing to catch up with her.

There’s also 14 minutes of “Spirit in the Dark,” horn-heavy and heart-thumping stuff that Franklin just KILLS for the first five minutes before bringing out Ray Charles for a tandem trip through a nine-minute reprise. Each on his/her own could send that song into the stratosphere; the two of them together are an unstoppable force of nature.

This is the kind of excitement and stirring soulfulness we no longer have in our lives as a living, breathing presence. Thank goodness Aretha Franklin recorded this album, so that her voice and her playing could outlast her life in this plane of existence.


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