October 1st, 2012
Artist: Etta James
Label: Eagle Vision
Format: DVD, Blu-Ray, CD
Release date: August 28, 2012
In Eagle Vision’s new retrospective on Etta James’ Montreux performances, two facts remain true over the course of her career: Etta was as wild a dresser as ever graced the stage and her spark never waned, though her voice noticeably lost some of its suppleness and range.
But why pay money to see an artist who is well past their prime, which arguably Etta was by 1993? It is thrilling and for some even imperative to see the great musical legends in the flesh before they exit the Big Stage. Diehard or not, it is also interesting to see how Etta reinterpreted her classic material, given the downside of having a prolonged career—the physical limitations that come with age and the monotony of singing the same songs year after year. Etta dealt with these problems like she would any of the no-good men she sings about, with attitude and a dirty sense of humor, both of which increasingly make their way into her stage persona.
Showboating across the stage in a gold lame robe in her 1993 appearance, Etta sings “Rather Go Blind” not with the tenderness and desperation of youth, but with a husky knowingness that emphasizes the song’s triumphant resignation over its heartbreak. Remembering the phantom touch of her old flame, she’s no longer “thinkin’ of [his] kiss and warm embrace.” She’s thinking about the part of him that is best left to suggestion, which she does very emphatically. The DVD also includes her ’75 version of the song, in which Etta hits on the perfect mix of sensual and sexy, mournful and authoritative:
Etta’s 1993 backing band does her a great disservice by ambushing her voice with overly slick, aggressive blues-rock instrumentation. But lucky for us, the DVD includes a sizeable portion of Etta’s ’75 performance whose lineup demonstrates the raw power of good stage chemistry. The churchy organist, the brass section, and funky guitar player work together to showcase the vibrancy of Etta’s inimitable voice, and achieve the sound of Stax Record’s classic soul. In fact, the horn section’s melodic flares punctuate Etta’s improvised vocals with such potency that Etta herself looks delighted if not a bit surprised that she’s finally found somebody that can keep up with her.
The music from her Montreaux performances is also available on CD.
Reviewed by Betsy Shepherd