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MUSIC REVIEW: Essential Aretha

Prepare to have goose bumps. Rhino's expanded re-release version of Aretha Franklin's "Live At the Fillmore West" captures Lady Soul in 1971, at the height of her vocal powers, (not that she's diminished so much in the intervening years) and during an interesting crossroads of her career.

She was already a major crossover star with "Respect" charting No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts, but where to go next was a major question. What Franklin and producer Jerry Wexler did was recruit a great band featuring King Curtis and the Kingpins, one of the best rhythm sections ever, add ringer Billy Preston on organ and then turn them loose at Bill Graham's Fillmore for three nights of live recording. After opening with "Respect," the band works through a sequence of contemporary hits beginning with an insistent "Love the One You're With," a church-infused "Bridge Over Troubled Water," a rocking "Eleanor Rigby" and a sensual cover of Bread's "Make It With You."

Franklin never sounded better, but the magic was yet to come. A glorious "Dr. Feelgood" puts her into a righteous preaching mood (a sequence edited out of the original album) before leading the band into a simply rapturous "Spirit in the Dark" which even jumps into a double-time, good-foot coda.

It gets even better when she brings Ray Charles out for the encore. Charles feels his way into the groove even though he doesn't know the words and then just improvises wordless vocals as the band locks in behind him, finding a groove that goes on forever. But Charles, who's been to church himself, breaks down the band and it's just 20 minutes of an old school rhythm-and-blues jam. This is soul music.

The re-release has a second CD of alternate and unissued songs, but the enhanced original original is essential.

"Live at the Fillmore West" is released by Rhino.

**** out of four stars.

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