ARETHA FRANKLIN: LIVE AT FILLMORE WEST (1971)
CD I: 1) Respect; 2) Love The One You're With; 3) Bridge Over Troubled Water; 4) Eleanor Rigby; 5) Make It With You; 6) Don't Play That Song (You Lied); 7) Dr. Feelgood; 8) Spirit In The Dark; 9) Spirit In The Dark (reprise); 10) Reach Out And Touch (Somebody's Hand); CD II: 1) Respect; 2) Call Me; 3) Mixed-Up Girl; 4) Love The One You're With; 5) Bridge Over Troubled Water; 6) Share Your Love With Me; 7) Eleanor Rigby; 8) Make It With You; 9) You're All I Need To Get By; 10) Don't Play That Song (You Lied); 11) Dr. Feelgood; 12) Spirit In The Dark; 13) Spirit In The Dark (reprise).
Aretha's big, bulky, flashy show at the Fillmore West has become a love-hate affair amid critics and fans alike. Defenders and propagators never tire of repeating how terrific it was of Jerry Wexler to convince Aretha to drop her usual backing band (the one we heard on Aretha In Paris) for these shows and rely on King Curtis and the Kingpins instead — not to mention the addition of Billy Preston and the Memphis Horns, and Ray Charles himself for the encore! Skepticists, however, object with a smirk that the entire show was a humiliating sellout to white audiences, what with at least half of the setlist dedicated to Aretha's reinterpretations — sometimes forced and clumsy — of the Big White Hits of the day, and remark that to pass it for Aretha's greatest live album would be betraying the essence of soul.
On a factual basis, the skeptics are probably right. Wexler was constantly steering Aretha into that direction, and commercial considerations must have played a serious part in this. Then again, there is always the «bridging the racial gap» justification, and no one can ever state with certainty whether it was greed or gallantry lying at the bottom of it all. And once we get down to it, the real question, of course, is not whether Aretha had any real business covering these songs, but whether or not she managed to make a good job out of it.
Not quite, I'd say. Of the four «white hits» covered during the show, 'Eleanor Rigby' remains as perfectly misinterpreted as it ever was, and (Bland) Bread's 'Make It With You' is no less awful in Aretha's version as it was in the original. I have mixed feelings over the famous cover of 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'; again, it is probably a reinterpretation that works much better if you have never heard the original — Franklinization of the song leads to a complete loss of the tender, caring atmosphere provided by Garfunkel, and when the lady belts out "Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down", I'd suggest to steer clear: no one wants to be buried under three hundred pounds... oh, never mind.
In the end, what remains is Stephen Stills' 'Love The One You're With', a song that lends itself very well to the Aretha treatment, not to mention the great interplay between the horns and Preston's jumpy organ. That is one great cover — friendly, rocking, and sincere-sounding — and it honestly makes one wonder just how much of the lady's own judgement went into those selections and what the hell prevented all these people from making all the right choices; it's not like there was any sort of limit to the material. Anything from 'Whole Lotta Love' to 'Long As I Can See The Light' would easily do, but no, they had to pick a Bread hit? Ridiculous.
No complaints can be voiced about the rest of the material. One of the most frantic 'Respects' in existence to open the show; 'Don't Play That Song' turned into a dazzling screamfest; eight minutes of a slow, steamy 'Dr. Feelgood' that challenge Tina Turner herself on the sexiness issue; and, best of all, a huge, sprawling, never-ending, but never-boring twenty-minute jam to conclude 'Spirit In The Dark', first with Ray Charles trading voiceovers with our heroine, then just letting the tape roll as the Kingpins and the Memphis Horns battle it out with each other. On formal grounds, this may be condemned as overkill, but these are some of the finest, if not the finest, R'n'B players of their era, and not for one second do I get the feeling that they are merely carrying on on autopilot because somebody forgot to tell them when to stop — they're going on strictly as long as the spirit is there (or until Aretha does tell them to "break it up!").
Regardless of the flaws, Live At Fillmore West is essential Aretha, a fact commemorated by several different releases of the album: mine is the 2-CD edition where the second disc adds alternate versions from other shows, plus some additional material like 'Call Me', but there is also a limited 4-CD edition that adds the King Curtis part of the show and may actually be a better buy if you're generous enough (note, however, that Curtis was not above lame white artist covers either — his 'Whiter Shade Of Pale' will not make the world forget Procol Harum any time soon). My thumbs up relate to any of these editions.