Rhino Records has done all of us a favor with “Live at Fillmore West,” a rerelease of two live recordings: 1971 performances at the Fillmore West by Aretha Franklin and her backing/opening band, King Curtis, which sound marvelous in their remastered form but still haven’t lost too much of that gritty, groovy vinyl feel.
The Queen of Soul booked the three San Francisco gigs in 1971 as an attempt to cross over to a more mainstream audience. To that end, she “experiments” with some covers of pop tunes, bringing soul and panache to “Love the One Your With” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Backed by King Curtis and his impeccably tight band, such potentially nonsensical covers flow as smooth as a waterfall. The rest of the album is pure Aretha magic. It opens with the fastest, strongest, most aggressive rendition of “Respect” you’ve ever heard, and then settles into a spiritual, soulful groove. Ray Charles makes an impromptu appearance and brings some action to the keys for a reprise of her classic “Spirit in the Dark.”
The second disc contains some alternative versions and selected songs from the three performances and is also well worth the listen. It’s great to hear such a landmark performer in top form, taking risks and reaching out to a more-than-willing audience.
Meanwhile, saxman King Curtis serves up a healthy dose of instrumental Memphis Stew — a sound that was both classic in its soul leanings and cutting-edge in its funkiness — as well as some clever and spirited covers of Zeppelin and Procol Harum.
Bill Graham struck gold on this one. It may have seemed radical to book black acts for a white audience mired in the miasma of post-1960s psychedelia, but Graham knew better. Music always trumps and transcends categories and color barriers. Always has and always will. It was a radical idea that just made a whole lot of sense.