A Little Too Much of a Good Thing
I promise you when you leave here, you will have enjoyed this show as much as any that you’ve had an occasion to see. Alright?
—Aretha Franklin, 7 March 1971
There is no shortage of superlatives to adorn Aretha Franklin’s Live at Fillmore West, for it is among the most riveting concerts ever captured on record. Originally recorded and released in 1971, Live at Fillmore West is the gold standard by which other live albums can be measured. The excitement generated by its spontaneity is visceral and it remains a stunning document that attests to the power of Franklin’s craft.
Producers Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin masterfully edited down Aretha Franklin’s three-night stand at the Fillmore West in March 1971 to a single LP. (Most of the material was culled from the third night.) Upon its release, the album caught fire in the Top 10 of the Billboard pop album charts and earned Franklin a number one record on the R&B album charts. It’s this single-disc version that commands your attention. No momentum is lost on the 10 songs, whether the soulful reworking of Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” or the eight minutes of ecstasy that is “Dr. Feelgood”. Thirty-five years later, Rhino/Atlantic has unearthed a second disc’s worth of alternate takes and unused songs absent on the original LP. This presents a challenge for the casual Aretha Franklin fan—does revisiting a seminal recording twice over dim the magic that made it special in the first place?
The answer is: sort of. Franklin enthusiasts, first and foremost, will devour the alternate takes offered on disc two of the Live at Fillmore West re-issue. Music snobs will no doubt memorialize the contributions of Billy Preston and Ray Charles to the material, now that Preston and Charles are no longer among us. The casual fan will be immersed in the unused songs, a grand total of four: Franklin’s “Call Me”, a cover of Jimmy Webb’s “Mixed-Up Girl”, the Bobby “Blue” Bland cut “Share Your Love With Me”, and a rousing rendition of Ashford & Simpson’s “You’re All I Need to Get By”. All the above constituencies will enjoy the pristine, remastered sound, and the insightful liner notes by David Nathan, which detail the genesis for the concert.
The re-release of Live at Fillmore West proves Wexler and Mardin’s instincts. The takes issued on the original LP are superior over the alternates on the re-issue. That’s not to say Aretha is not in exceptional voice, it’s just that the majority of alternate takes are from the first night of her engagement. Because Franklin hadn’t performed live with King Curtis & the Kingpins, a few “bumps” later smoothed out on the second and third night are evident. Listen closely to the remarks that precede “Mixed-Up Girl” and you’ll hear the band searching to be in sync with Franklin.
Moments that seemed spontaneous on the original LP are unnervingly replicated on the alternate takes. Franklin’s remarks to the audience at the close of “Respect” on the original Live at Fillmore West (see introductory quote) were beloved by fans and central to the mood of the album. On the alternate version of “Respect”, which opens disc two of the re-release, we hear those same remarks uttered with somewhat less conviction.
Since there are few recordings capturing the Queen and the Genius side by side, the highlight for many listeners is Ray Charles’ surprise appearance on the reprise of “Spirit in the Dark”. Clocking in just shy of nine minutes on the original LP, the unedited reprise continues for an additional eleven minutes. The full 20-minute jam is an interesting listen—the first time.
Nattering aside, only the numbest of listeners could be unmoved by the ferocity of interplay between Franklin, her operatic background vocalists (The Sweethearts of Soul), the Memphis Horns, and King Curtis’ band. The uncensored reactions from the audience embellish the experience of listening to Franklin and her musicians play off one another. The showstopper of the concert—on both the original and alternate versions—is, without question, “Dr. Feelgood”. The screams from the audience stem from the bowels of ecstasy as both men and women implore “saaang it!” and “right on girl!” Hear Franklin break the word “good” up into unknown vowels and syllables. You will be transfixed.
David Nathan singles out a key observation about Live at Fillmore West that renders it unlike any other live recording in popular music. Referencing “Dr. Feelgood” and the gospel rave-up of “Spirit in the Dark”, Nathan notes that these performances are “yet another example of Aretha’s unquestionable dominance as one of a handful of black music artists who could take all she learned as a soloist in church and infuse it naturally into a live performance of straight-up secular material.” What the re-release of Live at Fillmore West best serves to accomplish is to remind contemporary audiences of Nathan’s point. Because of Nathan’s assessment and the goosebumps that surfaced on my arm while I listened, I would not dissuade anyone from buying the expanded edition of Live at Fillmore West. Just consider this: art, in all its forms, is sometimes best left untouched, or in this case, unexpanded.