Etta James – The Montreux Years (Montreux Sounds/BMG)
Legendary vocalist on fire in front of an appreciative Swiss audience
Claude Nobs was the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival. Not only was he the organizer and host, he often joined the musicians on stage during their performances. Sadly, he passed away in 2013, but his legacy lives on in the Claude Nobs Foundation, which boasts one of the largest libraries of live performances anywhere. These previously-unreleased concerts are finally starting to see the light of day.
Etta James was an artist that was known to leave it all out there on stage. The Montreux Years compiles several shows over a twenty-year span, and really shows her maturation as an artist.
Disc two is devoted entirely to a set she did in 1975, the first time she ever played in Europe, and her musical director, Brian Ray, was only 20 years old at the time. Oddly, they list all the players on all the concerts, EXCEPT 1975. But, you can clearly hear them introduce Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on bass (!). She covers the recent Staple Singers’ hit, “Respect Yourself,” before turning in an absolutely spellbinding take on “Drown in My Own Tears.”
She has lots of fun joking with the crowd about the language barrier – especially before going into “W-O-M-A-N.” There’s a funky middle section where she sings “shake your booty,” a full year before KC & the Sunshine Band would hit with a similar theme. While there are a lot of the “standard” blues tunes, her band handles them with their own flavor, keeping them interesting. Jones’ bass really powers the driving version of “Dust Your Broom.” She makes good use of singing and talking off mic during a fantastic “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
For disc one, James is joined by an all-star cast of players, including, at times, Rick Wakeman on keys, David “Fathead” Newman on sax, Steve Ferrone on drums.
There was something about Otis Redding’s compositions – perhaps they were better suited for women. Just like Aretha borrowed “Respect” and made it her own, Etta performed several Redding songs and just took them up another notch. Here, she tackles “I Got the Will” and just sounds possessed. The stripped-down Steve Goodman ballad, “A Lover is Forever” is so full of pain and desperation – she’s lived these lyrics.
She asks the crowd “did you go buy it” before launching into a song from her then-recent album, Seven Year Itch, the phenomenal “Damn Your Eyes.” She practically spits the words to “Tell Mama.” This arrangement sounds like “Soul Finger” from the Bar Kays. Claude Nobbs, the festival’s founder guests on harmonica on “Running and Hiding Blues.” She growls on the opening lines to “Something’s Gotta Hold on Me,” before settling into a groove backed by the horns.
Particularly good is the funky take on “Come to Mama.” Dig how she says “let me be / let me be your pacifier”! She jokes “I think they thought I was gonna be a jazz singer,” before going into a medley of three of her best ballads – “At Last,” “Trust in Me,” and “A Sunday Kind of Love.”
As in the other Montreux titles in this series, the tracks span a wide period of time, from 1975 to 1993. Honestly, I think she gets better as she gets older, she learned to get more command of her voice. There’s also fantastic liner notes, giving some background on where everything originated.
The Montreux Years reminds us that Etta James was a force of nature in concert. —Tony Peters