At Last – The Etta James Story

Etta James story res
Photo: Light-Box Photography.

Playhouse, April 30, 2013

Vika Bull has a voice to steeple up to the heavens and rattle the gates. If not always beautiful it is often thrilling and loaded with urgency, which makes it ideal for paying tribute to that tortured queen of r’n’b, Etta James.

Directed by Simon Myers and penned by John Livings this show intersperses a narrative of James’ life through two dozen songs associated with her. Its biggest asset is Bull, who shares James’s instinct for honest, no-nonsense singing that shuns ornamentation. Add that wake-the-dead voice and songs such as I Just Want To Make Love To You, Spoonful and Sugar On The Floor jolted the room with an electrical charge.

But the intensity was diffused by the narration (shared between Bull and trumpeter Tibor Gyapjas) which seldom shrugged off a certain awkwardness. James was among the great survivors of music-business self-abuse, rivalling Keith Richard and Chet Baker, and her story should have been more compelling. Perhaps it could have been left to Bull to ad lib from a store of knowledge rather than having the pair flounder through memorised spiels.

Bull tore up It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World, but didn’t quite hit the note of desperation inherent in I’d Rather Go Blind, which was oddly programmed after the similar 12/8 tempo of A Sunday Kind Of Love. Equally curiously we were told about James’s Billie Holiday tribute album and how she had met the jazz great in the 1950s, but the expected Holiday song never materialised.

Deep In The Night was a triumph of sheer vocal power, however, even if At Last was a nudge anti-climactic.

Although eminently slick, the band (led by pianist John McAll) lacked a little excitement and a hint of danger in the grooves. Bassist Chris Bekker stood out.

The show could lose 30 minutes and must shed its excessive volume, which exaggerated an edge of shrillness in the upper register of Bull’s storming voice.

Until Sunday.