In 1971, Aretha Franklin scored another major career first, affirming her crossover credibility by becoming the first R&B artist to headline a date at the fabled venue that was ground zero for all that encompassed the budding West Coast scene, the Fillmore West. The live album that resulted, Aretha Live at the Fillmore West, became yet another classic in her catalog, thanks not only to the power of her performance and the inclusion of such seminal classics as “Respect,” Spirit in the Dark” and “Don’t Play That Song,” but also due to her interpretations of various contemporary covers as well. It was in effect, a summation of everything that was essential about her iconic artistry.
As a result, Aretha Live at the Fillmore West is the ideal introduction for anyone in need of becoming instantly acquainted with Franklin’s gilded past. Hearing her wail out her standards offers a reminder of why she was dubbed “The Queen of Soul,” but her take on “Love the One You’re With,” “Make It With You,” “Eleanor Rigby” and, most famously, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” not only shows her daring to reinterpret the originals, but also her prowess when it comes to redefining them entirely. Indeed, on paper it would seem impossible to best Simon and Garfunkle’s stirring performance of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” but here, live in front of a stunned, adoring audience, she brings an urgency and emotion barely hinted at in the original.
Over the course of popular musical history, certain live albums stand out. — The Allman Brothers’ Live at the Fillmore, Frampton Comes Alive, The Stones’ Get Your Ya Ya’s Out, Four Way Street, and the like being among them. Indeed, the essence of a concert collection is to define an artist in a setting where there is little possibility for embellishment. Therefore, consider this Franklin at her finest.