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RIP Aretha Franklin: Soul and Live at Fillmore West
By Christopher Sloce
The closest thing to a seance I've ever been a part of I took part in for the sake of a pitch. I laid in my bedroom and listened to Aretha Franklin, now departed's, incandescent Aretha Live at Fillmore West in the dark. I closed my eyes and thought a little in a way that's not dissimilar to the way I approach the times I've gone to Quaker services that partake in silent worship. Of course, I was listening to Aretha burn down Bill Graham's legendary venue so it wasn't entirely silent, and I did end up going to the Wikipedia page, where I learned that the Dean of Critics, the crusty but respectable Robert Christagau gave this album a B, and some anonymous dipshit in Rolling Stone gave it a MIXED review. This is the part of the review where you also learn I'm willing to fight an old man for musical opinions.
Because Aretha Live At Fillmore West is more than an album to me. I'm not crying a stan conspiracy where the entire world is against the artist of my obsession. There are two kinds of people on the planet: people who like Aretha Franklin and people I don't have any business talking to. But this album is beyond albums.
Partially because what Aretha does on this set is more than just cover songs. It's alchemy. "Respect", a song I never loved and appreciated in the studio version as all I could think of was a billion cliched deployments of it as a 70s women's lib anthem, becomes a breathless workout. "Love the One You're With" moves on beyond its granola origins as a poison pen letter to whoever made the mistake of sleeping with Stephen Stills that week and becomes a gospel of accepting what good you have in life. I have to confess here that I've never finished the Simon and Garfunkel version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" for the simple reason that what is mere stillness in their version becomes an anthem of spiritual power when Aretha and the backing band take it over. This song is the guide to so many wayward, painful moments in my life, a spell I merely need to cast up on spotify to remind me that there's life beyond tribulation. She manages to make Bread's soggy "Make It With You" sexy. The only outright robbery she doesn't commit is of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby", and even that's great. All of the originals are unimpeachable, as well. It may seem like in the public consciousness that Aretha was largely respected as an interpreter of songs ala Frank Sinatra, "Dr. Feelgood" swelters and "Spirit in the Dark" takes everybody back to the place Aretha's music began and tells you what this album was always supposed to be: a spiritual exhortation of all that you will experience in life. Even Ray Charles gets in on the testimony with a cameo that's as good as him shooting at a kid in a record store in THE BLUES BROTHERS.
We do need to talk about soul music to close this up: it's impossible to ignore that many of its shining lights began singing Christian spiritual music and ended up in the secular world, and the greats all seemed to walk the line of knowing their origins but having to live in a world that failed to live up to their origin's expectations; where temptation, lust, anger, envy and greed were a part of the everyday. At the best, walking this line puts into the listener's mind the simple contradictions of living in a difficult and wicked world while striving to be something better than difficult and wicked. And while it's easy and sometimes thrilling for music to shirk that knowledge and follow out those full consequences (a great example of this is Future), the music that most restores you is the music that strives to get at something deeper and tries to get to the truth that we're all attempting to live an ideal that is very difficult to live up. That's what soul music means to me: it's the sigh of creature oppressed by the ideal and wriggling through with the measures they have available. That's why it's so important for Aretha to imbue "Make It With You" with 10,000 degrees of electric desire: it shows what she had in common with a largely hippie audience. And that was that we were all here to get through this thing called life.