Etta James The Montreux Years

Etta James Owned the Stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival

Whether you are just a casual fan of Etta James or a downright fanatic, all will be equally blessed by this tremendous sounding package.

The Montreux Years
Etta James
BMG / Montreux Sound
25 June 2021

The Montreux Jazz Festival has been going strong since 1966, even though they haven’t strictly stuck with the “jazz” label. “I’d like to do a medley of some songs I recorded in the early ’60s,” singer Etta James said while introducing her medley of “At Last/Trust Me/Sunday Kind of Love” onstage at the famous festival in the summer of 1989. “I think, at that point, they thought I was going to be a jazz singer.” She stretches out the word “jazz” just a millisecond longer than most of us would speak it, probably out of amusement towards her own words. “I’d like to do a tune for you now; it’s an old blues tune. As you know, I am a blues singer,” James says as she introduces “Drown in My Own Tears” from the same stage 14 years earlier during her first-ever Montreux set.

Both of these moments come to you courtesy of the new Etta James package The Montreux Years, released through BMG and Montreux Sound. This stage banter is just a small indication of how in-control Etta James was of her stage presence and her music, even if she was, culturally speaking, a bit of a fish out of water.

Montreux Jazz Festival founder and organizer Claude Nobs was an unapologetic fanboy of James, so much so that he joined her on stage a few times with his harmonica. If it was an act of faith on his part to invite Etta James and her road-weary ten-ton voice to do her first set at a world-famous jazz festival in 1975, it went over exceptionally well. The second CD of The Montreux Years is devoted to that first show 46 years ago. Even if it’s just “highlights of this special landmark concert”, these nine songs go a long way in capturing a potent blend of uncertainty and excitement. “I can’t speak French, I can’t speak nothin’…but American English. Slang!” she admits before starting the first song, “Respect Yourself.” “The only thing I can say you might be able to understand is ‘Get down!’ Can you say that?” They could, and the performer-audience exchange from that point forward flowed like a river.

Moving from the hard soul of “Express Yourself” to the slow, slow burn of “Drown In My Own Tears”, James and her band make a funky noise with “W-O-M-A-N” — that’s only three songs in 33 minutes. And while that may seem like a solid set right there, guitarist Brian Ray and the rest of James’ band let it be known that they’re just getting warmed up with the old 12-bar standby “Dust Your Broom”. From there, they are free to roam from the tightly-wound R&B of “All the Way Down” to the dirtiest blues of “Baby What You Want Me to Do”.

As good as the second CD is, it feels pretty tame in comparison to the first CD. Hopping around in unchronological order from 1977, 1978, 1989, 1990, and 1993, these 12 tunes feel like what the sequencing is meant to be: one long string of highlights. “There have been few performers appearing at the Montreux Jazz Festival more electrifying than Etta James,” the liner notes boldly state, and the first cut alone should be enough to convince anyone that this can’t be just mere opinion.

“Breakin’ Up Somebody’s Home” sounds, for lack of a better word, enormous. The power of the horn section nearly matches James’ vocal ferocity, the two pushing one another to their next levels. A rendition of Otis Redding’s “I Got the Will” and James’ own “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” are no less energetic. The latter is introduced as “a song I wrote about 30 years ago…right when rhythm and blues was having its baby rock ‘n’ roll”. You won’t care if James doesn’t seem to understand the definition of “a capella” — “A Lover is Forever” features two guitars and some light percussion — because each performance captured from these decades truly feels like she and her band are giving it their all. And Holy Topographic Oceans, Batman, Rick Wakeman is featured on 1977’s “Tell Mama”.

Whether you are just a casual fan of Etta James or a downright fanatic, all will be equally blessed by this tremendous sounding package. It may be incomplete, but that’s never stopped jazz and blues devotees before. Why not join them in the hype by seeing what the fuss is all about? You might find your new favorite song all over again.

RATING 8 / 10
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