Before we begin examining the newest collection of live Etta James recordings, we must ask one question. Have you heard Etta James Rocks The House, a/k/a one of the five or six most explosive live albums ever made? Released in 1963, when James was 25 and already a ten-year veteran of the blues world, this album continues to dazzle and delight, proving beyond doubt that this woman was as tough and hard as any male blues singer, while also displaying a tenderness and sweetness.
If perhaps you haven’t heard this album, there is no point continuing to read this review. We’ll sit here and wait while you run out and get acquainted with the classic. The Internet has plenty of patience. Actually, as long as we’re looking at what was already out there, you probably want to pick up the two volumes of Blues In The Night, live recordings from 1986 which put James in the company of jazz players like Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Jack McDuff. Though not as fiery as Rocks The House, these records show the complete control James had as a singer, the ability to examine every nook and cranny of a song. So, that makes three Etta James live records you should own before this new one.
Etta James' Live At Montreux 1975-1993
As great as those three records are, however, they don’t deliver the one aspect of an Etta James live show that anybody who saw her (at least in the 1980s, when I was in her presence several times) can’t forget. The raw, earthy sexuality that Etta James traded on was downright unprecedented, especially when one considers that for most of those years, she was far from the body type normally associated with such a thing. Etta James' Live at Montreux 1975-1993 brings the dominatrix side of this woman to our ears, and if we can’t see her rolling her rump in the direction of the audience, we can definitely hear that she might be ready to do it at any time.
The album collects recordings made from four different appearances James made at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The first six cuts come from 1993, when James was at the peak of her modern powers. Her version of Muddy Waters’ “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” leaves no doubt about who’s in charge of this sexual relationship. Though her voice had lost a little of its upper range by this time in her long career, she was still able to trade on her phrasing and that insinuating growl that always sat available in her throat. The band, presumably including her sons Donto and Sametto, who played with her for many years, is pumped up behind her.
I'd Rather Go Blind
James first recorded “I’d Rather Go Blind” back in 1968 and it remained one of her most powerful numbers for the rest of her career. Her vocal here is a tour de force, bringing the 25 years of experience she’d had with the song into play. Forcing the song into rhythmic places no other singer could take it, James stuns us into accepting the premise that her lover does so much for her that she’d rather be blind than see him with another woman. And she makes sure we know that includes his sexual skills.
The rest of the 1993 performance is a joy as well. “How Strong Is A Woman” was originally recorded for her 1989 album Seven Year Itch, probably the finest record she made in the last half of her life. It’s the opposite of a feminist anthem, but she sells her strength as being necessary to prop up her man. “A Lover Is Forever” was a newly released number from a compilation released that year, and it’s a gorgeous ballad that must have stunned the audience into astonished silence. James does wonders with her phrasing and dynamics as the band quietly plays only guitars and cymbals.
Come To Mama
“Beware” was another recent song at the time, and it’s a dark slab of funk in which James rears back and roars advice to watch out for those who are ready to break up homes. Another one from Seven Year Itch, “Come To Mama,” ends this portion of the CD with one of the most exciting and sinuously sexy performances she could deliver. “I’ve got your favorite toy /guaranteed to bring you joy;” Etta James could actually sell that line.
The next three cuts date from 1975, and it’s immediately clear that James could hit more high notes than she could in 1993. But that doesn’t make these songs better. The tight R&B band backing her does a great job, but James doesn’t really own any of these songs. Best of the three is her cover of the Staple Singers' “Respect Yourself” in which she overpowers the lyrics with the sheer force of her delivery. While it’s fun to hear her sing the word “goddamn” several times, she forgets to treat the song with respect.
She had been singing “W.O.M.A.N.” for many years at this point, but does little with the improvisational stretching over this fairly funky groove, sticking too long to calls to “Shake Your Booty,” a new idea at the time. She does, however, make sure to emphasize what men like to do with women, “In and out and side to side and round and square.” That last pair isn’t in any Kama Sutra I’ve ever seen. A perfunctory “Dust My Broom” ends this set.
Much better is the ballad medley from 1977 of “At Last,” “Trust In Me,” and “A Sunday Kind Of Love,” which can also be found on the Blues In The Night first volume. It’s clear that at this point, she’d already started thinking of these as a hybrid of jazz and R&B. And from 1989, a sumptuous version of the oddly metaphorical “Sugar on the Floor” ends things with a masterful vocal performance.
Steve's Bottom Line
When Etta James died this past January, she left behind 50 years of mostly brilliant recordings. And yet having one more is a pleasure we should be very glad to hear. (Eagle Records, released July 24, 2012)
[Etta's performances on the Live At Montreux 1975-1993 CD are also available on DVD and Blu-ray disc]
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