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(Private Music 11646 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/30/2003)
Classical music and blues share a curious characteristic. Each genre celebrates both youthful prodigies and venerable performers. Classical music has had its youthful sensations, from Mozart to the current day, while in the blues, teenage performers like Johnny Lang have sold a lot of recordings. But in both forms, performers tend to get better with age. Classical performers learn more of the subtleties of the music, while for blues musicians it's the same case, with some of life's experiences manifesting themselves in the music.
This week, we have the latest release by a real veteran blues singer, who in her mid-60s, is at her peak, and also proving remarkably prolific. She is Etta James, and her new release is called Let's Roll.
Jamesetta Hawkins was a bit of a prodigy herself, beginning her performing career at age 14, when she was discovered by Johnny Otis, who gave her her stage name. Her first record was in 1955, and five years later, she first hit the top 10 with All I Could Do Was Cry. She continued to record and perform extensively, achieving one of her biggest early hits in 1967 with Tell Mama. But a troubled life, bedeviled by drug problems and abusive relationships, caused an extended hiatus in her career. After exorcising her devils, she made a triumphant comeback in 1987, with the acclaimed album Seven Year Itch. Since then she hasn't stopped. Let's Roll is at least her tenth release since then, during which time she has won numerous W.C. Handy blues awards, as well as a Grammy for her 1994 jazz-oriented collection of Billie Holiday songs called Mystery Lady.
While Ms. James is not a very prolific songwriter, her compositions have been covered by other artists, and she also turns out to have a great ear for picking worthwhile songs by others and making them her own. That is the case on Let's Roll. She draws on such composers as Delbert McClinton and Nashville writer Gary Nicholson to come up with a great collection of songs, most of whom have a degree of lyrical cleverness that only adds to their appeal.
Unlike many performers with lengthy careers, and who could be excused for sticking with their particular sound and putting it to best advantage, Etta James is stylistically restless. She has done the aforementioned jazz album, served up live recordings, and gone to Nashville absorbing the influences there, including a little steel guitar on her 1997 release Love's Been Rough on Me. She has worked with various studio musicians from different backgrounds, and recorded material ranging from bruising blues to mellow ballads.
This time around, she records with her regular touring band, including her sons Donto and Sametto James, and does an album more toward straight rock & roll. And, as usual, Ms. James rises to the occasion, showing that time has not in any way diminished her vocal power, and her ability to convey a song with a combination of conviction, class and that nod-and-a-wink that has makes her one of the most compelling singers on the scene today.
The result is an album that never stops. While big production blues albums with top-flight studio musicians can be gems, putting a veteran performer in the studio withf her regular touring band, can make for a tight, energetic performance, and this CD is proof of that. Ms. James also served as producer of Let's Roll herself.
Joining her, in addition to her drummer son Donto and her bassist son Sametto, are David K. Mathews on keyboards, Bobby Murray on electric guitar, and Josh Sklair, who adds some interesting touches such as acoustic guitar, and banjo, as well as playing harmonica for the group. There is also a three-piece horn section. The sound of the band can sometimes recall the Rolling Stones at their best.
The CD starts off in high gear with a Delbert McClinton composition Somebody to Love, which boasts the kind of smoking performance with lyrical acumen that makes this CD so strong. While the lyrics can be lighthearted, Ms. James and band take no prisoners. <<>>
More toward blues is Leap of Faith, by Gary Nicholson, one of the more lyrically positive songs on the CD. The arrangement is classic Memphis soul, and Ms. James serves up the song with the relaxed confidence that sounds as if she has been singing the tune for 30 years. <<>>
Also written by Gary Nicholson and Bekka Bramlett is Strongest Weakness, one of the album's more energetic rockers, but with an interesting twist -- an added banjo. Again, Ms. James picked a song with slightly whimsical lyrics that she nevertheless belts out like a force of nature. <<>>
One of the CD's highlights is the intriguing Delbert McClinton co-composition Wayward Saints of Memphis. The low-down-in-the-swamp sound, the allegorical lyrics, and again Ms. James' superb delivery of the song makes the track one that you'll have trouble getting out of your head. <<>>
Back in the Stones-flavored rock bag is Old Weakness also written by Gary Nicholson. The band is in great form, and seems to inspire Ms. James to adding even more power to the song. <<>>
On her 1997 Nashville album Love's Been Rough on Me, Ms. James did a song written by Al Anderson of the venerable rock band NRBQ. There's another Al Anderson song on Let's Roll, called A Change Is Going to Do Me Good. Interestingly, it also recalls the more laid-back sound of that Nashville album. It's a bit of a temporary reprieve from the high power of the rest of the CD. <<>>
Ms. James does a 50-year-old New Orleans song called Stacked Deck and the slow blues features a guest vocal appearance by Ms. James' son Donto, who does a very respectable job. <<>>
On the 7th Day takes an interesting twist on Gospel songs, blending it with the blues, not only stylistically but lyrically. The song, co-written by Kevin Bowe, allows for Ms. James to showcase her rare combination of laid-back mood and power, and gives the band a chance for some good solo work. <<>>
Etta James is one of those venerable blues performers who only seems to get better with age. But unlike others, who can be excused for slowing down a bit upon reaching what for most people is retirement age, she seems to be pushing ahead at full steam turning out a new album just about every year, and touring constantly. Now, she has created one of her most energetic and powerful albums in years, drawing as much on rock as the blues, and summoning both the earth-moving power in her voice, and her flawless delivery. Recording with her regular touring band including her two sons, producing the CD herself, and being able to draw on some great songs makes Let's Roll a blues and rock album that just about has it all.
Sonically, the CD makes no attempt at being a delicately-recorded audiophile album, it's loud and has plenty of power, but the sound is reasonably clean, and the mix puts everything in the right place. About the only thing I would quibble with is the rather processed, almost artificial sound of the drums, which is a little odd given the fact that the original recording engineer on the California sessions is drummer Donto James himself, though the mix engineer is pop producer David Z, who has worked with Prince among others. We'll give it an A-minus.
It's hard to pick a best album among Etta James prolific and stylistically-varied output of the last decade and a half. Every CD she has done has had its strong points. But the sustained energy level, and all-around great performances by Ms. James and her band, make Let's Roll another highlight of her impressive career.
(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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