The Great (Live) Albums: Aretha Franklin’s ‘Aretha Live at Fillmore West’

The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!

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Aretha Live at Fillmore West, Aretha Franklin (1971, Atlantic)

For decades now among white cultural critics, it’s been a commonplace rhetorical tact to compliment the non-rock music that the critic likes as being “totally punk rock,” as if punk were somehow the best possible thing to which any musical project could aspire. Naturally there are all sorts of unseemly racial implications that make this sort of praise problematic, but goddamn if using “punk” as an adjective doesn’t succinctly convey a very specific idea about a piece of music.

To call something “punk” is to identify it as raw, shaggy, and fast. And certainly one of the last artists you’d ever describe as punk is Aretha Franklin, the Memphis-born powerhouse whose pyrotechnic voice is the instrument against which all capital-V “Vocalists” are judged. Franklin was a black female artist in an era when pop audiences were much more sharply divided among racial lines. Which may be why Franklin’s longtime producer Jerry Wexler felt the need to switch things up as the then-28-year-old singer headed into the hippie hotbed of San Francisco for a three-night concert stand in early March 1971 at the storied Fillmore West, a venue often frequented by the flower-power acts of the day.

“Hippie” here is basically code for “young and white,” which probably explains why the resulting Aretha Live at the Fillmore West leans so heavily on covers of songs made famous by white artists: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Stephen Stills, etc. But the results of such blatant hippie pandering are undeniable.

 You done hired the hit-maker: drummer Bernard Purdie

You done hired the hit-maker: drummer Bernard Purdie

Fillmore West lunges out of the gates with a scorching—and yes, very punk—rendition of “Respect,” the Otis Redding tune of which Franklin took permanent ownership of with her iconic 1967 cover version. Here the band gets a frenetic workout, as Franklin motors ahead with we-give-no-fucks super-confidence, blasting out the windows with seemingly little-to-no effort.

The band here isn’t Franklin’s usual ensemble, instead boasting a well-selected cadre of ringer-virtuosos including guitarist Cornell Dupree, keyboardist Billy Preston, drummer Bernard Purdie, bassist Jerry Jemmott, and Stax Record’s Memphis Horns, among others. In my fantasy screwball-comedy-movie version of the making of the album, I imagine Franklin traveling in a beat-up Dodge DelMonaco collecting all-star players all across the country, Blues Brothers style. (I know Franklin already appears in Blues Brothers proper. Don’t @ me.)

Next up is the secretly hilarious booty-call jam “Love the One You’re With,” which I was surprised to learn was originally recorded by classic rock droop Stephen Stills. Thankfully, the version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that follows is barely recognizable from the schmaltz the song is subjected to with regularity on all those corny singing shows like The Voice. Also barely recognizable is Track Four, a peppy soul-sister reinvention of “Eleanor Rigby,” which transforms Paul McCartney’s baleful ode to picaresque loneliness into what sounds like the jaunty theme song to a 1970s Norman Lear produced sitcom about ELEANOR RIGBY, a sassy African-American factory worker just trying to make her way in the big city.

The smoothness continues with the slow burn of “Make It With You,” a track originally written and recorded by David Gates, of yacht rockers Bread. Like all artists who have mastered their craft to an exceptional degree, Franklin makes this shit look easy. The Aretha Franklin on display here has a voice as characteristically powerful as we would expect, but with a quickness and lightness not necessarily present in our more recent mental picture of an elder-stateswomen Franklin tastefully belting it out at the Kennedy Center Honors. This Aretha Franklin is horny and hungry—and that’s awesome.

 Aretha Franklin in 1971

Aretha Franklin in 1971

Having tossed enough red meat to her white audience members on the first half of the LP, the second half of Fillmore West opens with two original Franklin compositions in quick succession: the unhurried blues of “Dr. Feelgood” (not the Nikki Sixx song) and the brash anthem “Spirit in the Dark,” which Franklin pilots solo for nearly six minutes, increasing in feverish bongo-loving fury until its frenetic climax. Highly recommended for fans of the last 90 seconds of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” or Ween’s “Voodoo Lady.”

So now we’re moving into the final stretch of the album. Did you like “Spirit in the Dark”? Good! Because you’re getting nine more minutes of it, in a reprise featuring very special guest Ray Charles—this time in a smooth, chilled-out, after-hours version that’s like a very laid-back twin of the previous track’s gallop.

Aretha Live at Fillmore West is 50 minutes of cool virtuosos making hard shit look easy as hell. A great artist can make any song their own, as well as bend their own songs into new and surprising shapes. Live at Fillmore West does both. Whatever the mood, Franklin is a charmer. “I hope that tonight you will enjoy THIS show as much as any you have ever seen,” she says in the album’s intro. But is that an invitation, or a direct order? Either way: yes, ma’am.

-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)