Album review

Etta James – ‘The Montreux Years’

Etta James – The Montreux Years

(BMGCAT460DCD. Album review by Alison Bentley)

“As you know I am a blues singer,” Etta James tells the audience in one of the concerts this luscious 2-CD album samples from her gigs at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1975-1993. There’s jazz, rock and funk too, but she brings the blues into everything.

The CDs move backwards through the years. The second disc is a complete concert from 1975. It was her first appearance in Europe, and it shows how good she is at working an audience. She’s completely at home, wisecracking off-mic, getting the audience to yell with her. The band is superb, and it’s good to hear the distinctive, bitter-sweet voice responding to the heft of the horn section. In the loose funk of Respect Yourself she phrases perfectly round the appealing riffs. Central to the sound is blues guitarist and musical director Brian Ray who worked with James for around 35 years.

The blues takes many forms, from the slow burning Drown in My Own Tears to the speedy shuffle of Dust My Broom and Rock Me Baby, with their BB King-ish guitar. The Chicago  blues of Baby What Do You Want Me to Do (“so funky it stinks,” she says) and slow Stormy Monday rise and fall with the wild dynamics of the voice. James’ classic I’d Rather Go Blind is strongly emotive experience- you can hear her gospel background. Vital to the sound too is John Paul Jones’ (Led Zeppelin) mesmeric bass, especially doubled with tuba on the slinky All the Way Down.

The first CD dips into five Festival performances, mixed up to create a sense of a well-paced set, with different line-ups. Tell Mama and What You Want Me to Do (Encore) are from 77-78- the first with flute improvisation dancing round the vocals; the second is a sleazy “low down funky blues” where everyone gets to solo.

The tracks from 89 seem retrospective. Otis Redding’s I Got the Will is a reminder of how her throaty rasp can be like his. Something’s Got a Hold On Me sizzles with Ray Charles-like gospel grooves. (“…a song I wrote about 30 years ago…this was right when rhythm and blues was having its baby- rock and roll…” ) At Last/Trust in Me/Sunday Kind of Love is “…a medley of songs that I recorded in the early 60s. I think at that point they thought I was gonna be a jazz singer.” The first shows what a true improviser she is, still finding new ways to sing the old songs. Her emotive take on Sunday Kind of Love has the sax picking up her phrases and running with them.

By 1990 she has the late Claude Nobs, Montreux founder (named “Mr Festival himself“ in the shuffle Running and Hiding Blues) guesting on harmonica on several tracks. He blows the blues from the heart. When James lists musicians from the great blues tradition on the rollicking I Sing the Blues for You (93) (John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed) she namechecks Nobs too. The guitars on these later tracks create a rockier vibe, with the minor backbeat of Beware and grungy bassline of Come to Mama. In contrast, in A Lover Is Forever her voice is beautifully introspective and vulnerable, with just two guitars.

The two discs balance each other well. The recording quality is good, with just the occasional hint of feedback to remind you it’s truly live. There’s a glowing 70s-style CD case with helpful booklet.

Etta James is still hugely influential among all kinds of singers, and it’s wonderful to hear her verve and great musical skill in this setting.

TRACK LISTING (Perrformance dates stated MM/DD/YYYY)

CD ONE

1. Breaking Up Somebody’s Home
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/18/1990

2. I Got The Will
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/12/1989

3. A Lover Is Forever
Venue: Auditorium Stravinski Date: 7/15/1993

4. Damn Your Eyes
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/12/1989

5. Tell Mama
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/9/1977

6. Running And Hiding Blues
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/18/1990

7. Something’s Got A Hold On Me
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/12/1989

8. Beware
Venue: Auditorium Stravinski Date: 7/15/1993

9. Come To Mama
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/18/1990

10. Medley: At Last/Trust In Me/Sunday Kind Of Love
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/12/1989

11. I Sing The Blues For You
Venue: Auditorium Stravinski Date: 7/15/1993

12. Baby What You Want Me To Do (Encore)
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/8/1978

CD TWO

1. Respect Yourself
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/11/1975

2. Drown In My Own Tears
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/11/1975

3. W-O-M-A-N
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/11/1975

4. Dust My Broom
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/11/1975

5. I’d Rather Go Blind
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/11/1975

6. All The Way Down
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/11/1975

7. Baby What You Want Me To Do
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/11/1975

8. Rock Me Baby
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/11/1975

9. Stormy Monday
Venue: Casino Montreux Date: 7/11/1975

LINKS: The Montreux Years store

John Bungey’s review of Nina Simone – The Montreux Years

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