Throwback Thursday: Aretha Franklin, Neil Young, Bon Iver

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Aretha Franklin: Live at Fillmore West, March 5, 1971

R.I.P. Fillmore West, the famous rock ‘n’ roll music venue in San Francisco that shut down in July 1971. Just a few months before its closure, Aretha Franklin became the first R&B musician to headline a show there, doing an epic three-day performance streak that was recorded and turned into her second live record, Aretha Live at Fillmore West.

None of the recordings from the first night made it onto the original album, though a few appear on the deluxe edition, and they’re all memorialized on 2005’s Don’t Fight The Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live at Fillmore West. This first string of songs from March 5, 1971 is under-appreciated. It’s an exhilarating set that features covers of folkier hits like “Make It With You” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” as producer Jerry Wexler was sure the audience would be full of hippies (ah, SF before the tech boom). Franklin acknowledges this unconventional choice in her introduction for “Love The One You’re With”: “I know you’re expecting to hear a lot of the things that you have heard on record, and you will hear them, but bear with us for a minute; we’re trying a little something new.”

Franklin maintains her unmatched pipes to this day—it was just last year that she made Obama cry with “Natural Woman,” after all—but there’s something electrifying about watching these live moments from her early years. At the top of the set, watch her emerge from darkness into the classic circle of spotlight and let the chills ensue.

A particularly speedy version of “Respect” opens the show. Franklin grooves to the music and steps into the crowd to shake hands with audience members. Another highlight is “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business),” which manages to be even more fervent and sensual than the superb studio version. She plays piano, and the other musicians quiet down near the end as she engages in a slow call-and-response vocal improvisation with the backup singers. This transitions into “Spirit In The Dark,” the show closer.

“Anybody in here feel like hearing the blues?” Franklin teases the audience before “Dr. Feelgood.” “YEAH!” they shout back. “Anybody in here got the blues?” she asks, to more whoops. The first few bars start, she begins to sing, and the crowd explodes. The videos don’t have the sound quality or balance you’ll find on the Fillmore albums, but it’s worth seeing the Queen of Soul wow her fans on this historic night. —Monica Hunter-Hart

Neil Young: Live at Late Shoreline Amphitheatre, 1997

Neil Young  has organized the annual Bridge School Benefit since 1986. He fills an October weekend with performances from himself as well as other high-profile musicians and donates all proceeds to the Bridge School, an institution which, in its own words, educates “children with severe speech and physical impairments through the use of [...] assistive technology.” This 1997 concert, from the second night of the 11th iteration of the benefit, featured moving acoustic performances from Young.

Many of the songs he played were new to the crowd. He had yet to record them—they would show up on his album Silver & Gold three years later. The funniest moment of the concert is in the opening bars of “Slowpoke,” which sound exactly like the top of “Heart of Gold” (who thought that was a good idea?). The crowd erupts in cheers, only to realize when Young starts to sing that it’s not his biggest hit. “Slowpoke” would be released two years after this benefit, on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s final album, Looking Forward. It’s nice to hear it here in a more bare, intimate form.

Young ends the set with tunes that were by then classics: “Oh Mother Earth,” “After the Gold Rush,” and “This Note’s For You.” His performance of the latter is particularly excellent: Young is joined by two talented guest musicians who glean remarkable percussive and chirping noises from their harmonicas. Though it’s missing the horns and electric guitars of the studio version, the song—which is Young’s critique of artists who sell their music to advertisers—loses none of its defiant power. His anger is palpable, conveyed in grimaces and aggressive guitar strokes.

“After the Gold Rush” is the oldest song in the set. Incredibly, Young’s voice doesn’t sound too different than it did on the 1970 album version (though he did transpose the song down a step for this performance). This concert, satisfyingly, feels like classic Young: Neil sitting, strumming, and crooning for us the way he has for decades. Watch for a good dose of that, as well as some early live versions of Silver & Gold tunes. And hey, maybe even catch the next Bridge School Benefit in person and support a good cause. —Monica Hunter-Hart

Bon Iver: Live at Mohawk Outside Stage, 2008

At first glance, this footage from Bon Iver’s 2008 set could seem a little underwhelming: three young men clad in t-shirts and sneakers typically would not coincide with the depth of Bon Iver’s music. However, there are always exceptions.

The set begins with lead Justin Vernon strumming solo to the intro of “Flume.” Once Vernon opens his mouth to sing, any misconceptions about the band are quickly dispelled. While the crowd’s chatter is a constant throughout the set, Vernon’s clear-falsetto voice wins out. A rowdy bar setting is no match for Bon Iver.

I have always had the assumption that what sets live music apart from studio recording are the “messy moments”—not messy in an unorganized way, but in a real and organic sense. When recording in a studio, messy moments are edited out, but in a live setting it is often the messy moments that become the magic moments. Before launching into their second song, a magic moment is what we get. The three men take a few moments to harmonize and match each others’ pitches—something that takes years of experience to master. It is such a small and simple moment, but it is a powerful one. It temporarily quiets the rambunctious crowd, emphasizing the sheer power and force that Bon Iver exudes. The three men hit one last dissonant pitch, filling the air with a suspended note before launching into their next song. “Lump Sum” is Bon Iver at its best—beautiful melodic harmonies that are driven by a pulsing rhythm.

Their set closes with “The Wolves,” which is one of their more emotionally charged songs. Much of the verse is sung in between notes played, leaving the vocals filling the room. Vernon breaks out of his falsetto in the bridge, using his tone alone to portray the varying emotions that come with heartbreak. We get another magic moment during the bridge when Vernon instructs fellow guitarist Michael Noyce to “Keep it up,” and to “Hold it there,” regarding harmonies. It is a moment that reveals how in the moment this performance is. It gives the audience a glimpse into their creative process, which is always enlightening to witness.

What’s so magical about Bon Iver is their ability to make something immense out of something so little; Vernon alternates between worn out guitars while drummer S. Carey plays a broken down drum-set that consists of only a bass drum, snare, and a ride cymbal. Musically, the songs are simple; there are no complex instrumentations or odd meters but the simplicity gives the music room to come to life. Silence and space can be just as effective instruments as drums and guitars, both which Bon Iver plays so well. —Jaimie Cranford