Live At The Fillmore West

King Curtis

Atco/Rhino, 2006

REVIEW BY: David Bowling


King Curtis was a songwriter, producer, session musician, bandleader and sax player extraordinaire. He was at the height of his career when he came to the legendary Fillmore West, March 5th through the 7th, 1971, to back Aretha Franklin live in concert. This combination of the two artists produced one of the great live recordings of the 1970s: Live At The Fillmore West.

But there was much more to this recorded series of concerts than just being an Aretha Franklin album. King Curtis, along with his band the Kingpins, were also the opening act and would produce enough material to release his own Live At The Fillmore West album in 1971, and this album would be Curtis’ apex both commercially and artistically. A month after the album’s release, Curtis was murdered outside his apartment on August 8th.

Thirty-six years later, this album remains one of the best examples of instrumental soul and rhythm and blues music ever recorded. Even more amazingly, this music was produced live.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The first three songs of this nine-song set are possibly some of the best instrumental work ever recorded.  Curtis’ signature song “Memphis Soul Stew” gets the set off to a funky start. The song cooks along and gradually builds on his sax lines as he improvises within the structure of the song, while the Memphis Horns provide a full background sound.

Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” is taken in a subtle jazz direction. During his career, Curtis always flirted with jazz but never entirely crossed over; however,, his ability to merge jazz within a rhythm and blues context was brilliant. Meanwhile, Curtis is able to morph Led Zeppelin’s hard rock classic “Whole Lotta Love” into a funk classic. It’s rare for any well-known classic song to be reworked in an effective and unique manner, but Curtis makes the song his own.

The center of the concert revolves around his r&b reworking of the country classic “Ode To Billie Joe,” followed by a rousing version of Buddy Miles’ “Then Changes.”  The songs, when played back-to-back, provide a good counterpoint and show King Curtis at home with various tempos.

The only real miss on the original album is “Mr. Bojangles”; the song never really takes off and there is a distinct lack of energy, though maybe they were just saving it for the finale.

Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” is instantly recognizable, but Curtis used his bandleader skills to give the song a big band feel, and he brings the set to a satisfying conclusion with his own track, “Memphis Stew.” While it breaks no new ground, it does allow the members of the band to shine and finally unite in a rousing finish.

There are five bonus songs on his CD release. Four of the songs are alternate takes, but the fifth song is the real standout. “My Sweet Lord” features inspired keyboards by Billy Preston; Preston would focus more and more on his vocals as his career progressed, which was unfortunate as he was an extraordinary keyboard player, and here we find evidence of Preston at the top of his game.

This CD reissue has been cleaned up and the liner notes are excellent. King Curtis may be long gone but Live At The Fillmore West shows that he should never be forgotten.

Rating: A

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© 2008 David Bowling and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Atco/Rhino, and is used for informational purposes only.