thumb ettadreamerinsidecoverwebEtta James: Dreamer (Album Review)

Respectfully submitted to The Boston Blues Society Editor, Mr. Georgetown Fats, January 22, 2012.

Published with permission in the Blues Blog.

Just days after the legendary Jamesetta Hawkins died of long standing illness, it is with a heavy heart that I complete this review. Etta was only a few days shy of her 74th birthday.

Whether you are a pop music fan who only knows the iconic "At Last" for ceremonies, or the serious blues collector who has followed her career from Johnny Otis, to Chess, to RCA/Victor and other labels, Etta James is a core soul voice of music.

From the liner notes of "Chess Blues."

The label was always looking for strong women singers and in Etta James  (born January 25, 1938), they struck gold. A real belter, the LA native had  been discovered by Johnny Otis and was already a recording and touring  veteran with several hits to her credit by the time she joined Chess in 1960.  When the gospel-tinged, bluesy sounds of 'Something's Got A Hold On Me'  hit #4 on the R&B charts in 1962, it was her ninth hit in two years for the  label.

Etta James: The Dreamer

Released: November 8, 2011

Verve Forecast

Produced by: Etta James, Donto James, Josh Sklair, Sametto James

Musician credits: Drums: Donto James; Bass: Sametto James; Keys: David Kirk Matthews; Guitars: Josh Sklair, Bobby Murray, Leo Nocentelli, Big Terry DeRouen; Trumpet: Lee Thornburg; Trombone: Kraig Kilby; Saxes: Jimmy Z.

The voice is an instrument. And if we are going to talk about blues, the blue note is the "flatted unexpected note." When you approach this collection of works, keep in mind that Etta's voice always had a wide range of tones. This is what has made her so great over the years. For example, "Baby What You Want Me to Do (Live)" has the grit and vibrato to shake the bones. "Trust In Me" floats with crystal notes of light along with the piano, while "In The Basement" (the single with Sugar Pie DeSanto), has a dance swing that lets her belt out the platform of her voice.

Given the variety of sounds that Etta has historically been able to produce, The Dreamer, is suited to the range of her voice right now. This record is warm and inviting. It is more blues and soul than jazz or ceremony. There are some sassy gigs and straight up slides. The musicians who play alongside her have taken care to surround her with complimentary greatness. In so many ways, this final record, brings us back to the place where Etta started.


Track by Track:

This is a compilation of covers, the original artists are credited in the album liner notes.

1.Groove Me: King Floyd

This has a burst of funk groove and greets you with a James Brown type of 'hugh'. Yeah, Etta can do what the soul men do and she does it with grace. This album is sassy and brings Etta's charismatic vibe to it, right from the start.  

2.Champagne & Wine: Otis Redding/Roy Johnson/Allen Walden

Reflections on relationships with this slow simmering Otis Redding classic, Etta keeps her voice right in the middle of the horns, keys and great tempo with a subtle gospel humm along the background. This track is strong for Etta and the band.  

3.Dreamer: Spooner Oldham/Dan Penn/Bobby Bland

The opening notes of this song had a ring of Three Dog Night's "Mama Told Me Not To Come", but then it quickly changed course to a much lower key tune. I got to know Spooner Oldham's music by researching Jim Dickinson's work and his team writes amazing songs. This song is dark and direct in looking at the effects of life's choices on the rest of your days. Yet, there is hope for understanding. The guitar and production make this title track in my opinion, the centerpiece, as it stands out in its impact.   

4.Welcome To The Jungle: Steven Adler/Jeffrey Isbell/Michael McKagan/W. Axl Rose/Saul Hudson 

This song had me puzzled. Etta gets credit here for genre hopping and taking on whatever she fancies in the music world, including this cover of Guns and Roses. Rockers cover soul artists all the time, so why not jump into a metal to blues reverse? The lyrics are more definitive as they are slower and steadied. There were a few points where the song trailed off and rambled a bit and the ending didn't quite fall together in the way that I was hearing it. I applaud her feist in taking this on, but I was thinking another song choice might have better driven her point home.

5.Misty Blue: Bob Montgomery

I loved what she did with this song. Dorothy Moore's version of "Misty Blue" has been a soul staple for a long time. Etta made this one sound like she wrote it, and she sings it blue-r than blue, bringing it down to its core sensibility. Perhaps I am thinking of "Rather Go Blind" or "Fool That I Am," but to me, it had that unique Etta sound. Etta seemed to transform it like she does with most of what she performs. Her voice was natural and hit all of the notes. She did not have to adjust or force her voice at all. Etta is present, familiar.

6.Boondocks: Jimi Westbrook/Kimberly Roads/Wayne Kirkpatrick/Phillip Sweet/King Floyd/Karen Fairchild/Kimberly Schlapman

The lullabye of the mid-night train has brought this song to life for Etta in a meaningful way. The arrangements and backup vocals give it the inspirational gospel push to believe in yourself and that energy comes through. The pride stands strong. This song fits with Etta's history and also her voice at this time in her life.

7.Cigarettes & Coffee: Otis Redding/Jerry Butler/Jay Walker/Eddie Thomas

Stories are told here and Etta keeps the honor to Otis Redding's version while making it her own. Writing this now has me reflecting her whole life indeed. This song is a joyous tribute to love of all kinds, yet it is casual, real and connected. The keys and metronome drum effect were comforting, as someone is keeping watch of the time going by. This is the eternal visit with Etta, the friend we have known in her for decades. We can hang out with her, cigarettes and coffee, spending just one more hour. The lyrics are impeccable for the time this is published, as they reflect who she is, was, and always will be. In our soul searching journeys with Etta's music riding beside us, her voice is smooth in this track and seems to bring us back to what is important.

8.In The Evening: Ray Charles

More blues than the piano jazz that Ray Charles offered, this simmering ballad sparkles. There is a guitar solo that sneaks up on you toward the end, with the horns carefully placed, the mood extends and pushed the limits of what a blues song can do.

9.Too Tired: Johnny "Guitar" Watson/Joe Josea/Jules Taub

Slide guitar, rhythm, horns and quick tempo with piano pulls out all the stops in this classic jump blues number. This is anything but tired and Etta holds her own against the strong arrangements.

10.That's The Chance You Take: Sylvia Dee/Sidney Lippman/Johnny "Guitar" Watson

This song builds, and something about Etta's version reminded me of traditional Ray Charles. Johnny "Guitar" Watson's 1962 version is great and keeps to the vocals and guitar. This updated arrangement adds depth to the song with the piano in the forefront and Etta improvs a bit, "don't be afraid", which just continues to inspire !

11.Let Me Down Easy: Little Milton (James Milton Campbell, Jr.)

The quiet start to this love letter from a suspicious mind rocks the house. The guitar weaves in and around the horns on this track. This one is hard to catch, but Etta stares it straight in the eye and as always, she has the last word. (Yes, she does).

This record would be a great addition to any music collection. Even the fans who haven't followed Etta's career for very long would appreciate the bold soul and deep blues that are offered in "The Dreamer". For the rest of us grieving the loss of this courageous and talented woman, this album is a reminder that the music will continue to move us forward without having to let go of the past. With contemporary takes on classics, talented musicianship and great vocal grit, in the midst of your blues for Etta, her music will again fill the room with warmth and light. "Trust In Me", Etta says, we do and always will.

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"Oh, stand beside me, stand beside me all the while  Come on Daddy, face the future, why don't you smile.  

Trust in me and I'll be worthy of you." ~ Etta James