Etta James (from the album The Montreux Years available on BMG) (by Chris Wheatley)
A treat for fans of vocal Jazz comes this month in two servings from MBG Records, in collaboration with the revered Montreux Jazz Festival, showcasing classic recordings from that event's illustrious past performances. Etta James: The Montreux Years comes as a two-LP / double-CD set featuring Etta James' live concerts performances at the historic venue with recordings covering a timespan Beginning in 1975 and ending in 1993. The 1975 date is notable for marking Etta James first concert in Europe, many of the highlights of which are included here. As with the companion Nina Simone Montreux Years recordings, the remastered sound is first class, audience ambience and all, and the release features new liner notes and photographs.
For those not aware of the Montreux Festival's history, it first opened in 1967, at the Montreux Casino, with considerable help from Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun (of Atlantic Records). Although firmly centred around Jazz, the event quickly broadened its scope and has, over the years, played host to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Prince, and Frank Zappa. (It was during a performance by the latter act that a fire started which led to the original building burning down.) Of the many stars who have performed there, Etta James must rank among the very best.
As presented here, the set begins with a barnstorming number from 1990; “Breakin' Up Somebody's Home”. It's an upbeat, funky R&B (in the old sense) cut which evidently pleased the crowd mightily. The band are first class, and Etta James delivery is as excellent as ever, full of Gospel fire and emotion. It must have been a fine thing indeed to have been there. Indeed, much of the joy in listening to this and the companion Simone set, is the wide-open sound and audible audience. This is a master at work. If the polish of a studio recording is absent, and the star a little past her finest hour, it matters not. Back in 1977 “Tell Mama” wails and rattles. Etta James voice is subtly stronger here, the band just as hot. You can feel the energy pouring off the stage. Forward to 1993 and “I Sing the Blues for You” crawls lazy and dangerous as a snake. Amidst the harmonica screams and skewering guitar riffs, James' declaims an inspiring intro, before she and the band ramp it up and let loose.
'Side Two' is mainly comprised of that historic 1975 show, beginning with “Respect Yourself”. We have another top line-up of backing players here, including the always interesting John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin) on bass. The song itself, of course, is a burning Blues Rock which echoes the very best Stax and Atlantic Records sound. Muscular, inventive, and thrilling, Etta James and co. blaze their way through this classic with poise and power. James' own “W-O-M-A-N” is a standout, strident and swaying, complete with delightful banter between Etta James and the appreciative crowd. It's a wonderful R&B workout. Elmore James/Robert Johnson's “Dust My Broom” is taken at swinging pace, with honking horns and vamping organ. There is enough kinetic energy here to power a city.
The rest of the 1975 show is equally strong. “I'd Rather Go Blind”, another track on which Etta James holds co-writing credits, is a mesmerizing, slow-motion Soul ballad. “Rock Me Baby” fizzes with fun and spirit. A memorable version of “Stormy Monday” closes the set, with Etta James, as ever, giving it her all. Across the two discs, all the performances are strong. As with the Nina Simone release, it's the highlighted concert (in this case, 1975) which rises slightly above the chasing pack, but long-term fans, and also new ones, will find plenty to enjoy in every second. (by Chris Wheatley)
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