At Last, The Etta James Story features singer Vika Bull and eight-piece The Essential R & B Band giving renditions of songs from James’s 57-year output.
Despite her long career, this is Vika Bull’s first headline show and, while we might have tuned-out to some performers from the 80s and 90s, this show is a welcome reminder of Bull’s vocal control and range.
Described as a narrative concert, it has snippets James’s battles with addiction and mentions her significant relationships. While this doesn’t tell us all that much about James,it doesn’t interfere with the concert. However, your enjoyment might depend on how much you like loud music and belted-out tunes.
Knowing a smattering of James’s songs, I was expecting to be seduced and educated by this show. Early signs were promising with “Tell Mama” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You”. As the first act progressed, in general, the music became more amplified. The softer, introspective interlude of “All I Could Do Was Cry”, with just Bull and pianist and musical director John McAll, was an appreciated respite from the forceful tunes that comprised much of the bracket, and demonstrated that most of the time the piano was buried in the mix.
In the second act, I struggled to enjoy many of the songs because of the sheer volume, with vocals and horn section in conflict or showing signs of distortion at some points. My guest and I left with headaches, and not because the script didn’t address the whys of James’s addictions and creative decisions.
I didn’t enjoy blues turned up to 11, but plenty in the opening night crowd disagreed with a standing ovation.