There’s been a point made by Etta James’ record company and publicists about Let's Roll (Private Music) being a “rock” record. It doesn’t strike me as much different from anything Etta James has recorded over the past 50 years.
Set for a May release, the Etta James-produced album is as strong as any of the 70-plus recordings (counting re-issues, box sets and hits packages) released under her name over those years. For my ears, it’s a more impressive recording than last year’s widely applauded Grammy nominated live album Burnin’ Down The House, which struck me as Etta appeasing the masses. The disc at hand is more relaxed, and it sounds like she had fun in the studio.
At 65, Etta James’ vocal prowess is as impressive as ever it was. Delbert McClinton’s “Somebody to Love” has a straight up funky rocking beat, not to mention universal lyrics. When Etta sings, “You need a job so you can make some money… a sense of humor ‘cause life ain’t funny … a heavy duty set of jumper cables …no holes in your walkin’ shoes … the main thing you’re gonna find you need, a fertile place to plant your seed,” you know she does so with authority.
On “The Blues Is My Business,” the band powers it up for Etta to sing “If trouble were money, I’d have more money than any man should.” Blues is her business “and business is good” is the thematic line that binds the dozen tunes that make up this first class collection.
“Leap of Faith” has some of that great Muscle Shoals-style groove. ”Strongest Weakness,” with a banjo in the mix, is the kind of song that will make live audiences scream in delight. “Wayward Saints” brings it back down to a hushed late night whisper, again with that surprising banjo sneaking among the electric guitar, bass and drums.
“Lie No Better” has a hot harp intro, and Etta scolding, “Here you come draggin’ in/3am again/grinning that silly grin/smelling just like sin.” “Trust Yourself” is acoustic pickin' and harp under the harder overbeat on a song that has to do with not settling for anything. ”A Change is Gonna Do Me Good” is a gorgeous ballad out of the “Rainy Night In Georgia” cloth, and is what makes this so much more impressive than the bombast of last year’s live set.
On “Old Weakness,” the booty shakin’ commences with a southern fried groove, over which Etta complains that it’s “two in the morning, too hot to sleep,” and she feels that old weakness “comin’ on strong.” “Stacked Deck” has a loping slow groove over which Etta tells a story to a “live” club audience about a guy who liked to gamble, singing, “If you’re gonna play cards baby/well dontcha know you got to deal some time.” The gals in the “audience” eat it up.
“On The 7th Day” is a slow ballad, with muted trumpet and wah-wah guitar accompaniment, and the final “Please No More” could have been an outtake from the “Love’s Been Rough On Me” sessions.
The song selection is first rate, the Roots Band is in fine form, and Ms. James has never ever sounded better. This is the most impressive Etta James package to hit the shelves in a few years.
Did someone say this girl was 65 years old? Etta James just got a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and is about to see a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And she keeps recording absolutely magnificent music. Let me be that energized at 65!
--- Mark E. Gallo
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