When a luxury-car manufacturer decided to use blues singer Etta Jamess "At Last" for an ad campaign a year or two ago, it must have seem like an inspired choice. As the camera lingered over the car, James, her voice filled with longing, sang over a lush string arrangement, "At last/My love has come along." The ad seemed to promise both erotic fulfillment and high-class transportation. You had to wonder, though, if the people who developed the ad and the car execs who signed off on it had listened carefully to the tune. Theres a touch of anguish in Jamess voice, as if she anticipated some pain in her new romance. Maybe the ad was trying to tell us that the joy of owning the car is tempered by the demands of its maintenance schedule.
Soon after the ad appeared, a number of people asked me if I knew the singer and the tune. I wonder how many of them remembered what car was being pitched to them. I realized then that some songs are so powerful they can retain their impact even when used to sell a product. Its true that "At Last" was not as well known as songs by, for instance, the Who and Led Zeppelin that have been used in recent car ads. But those songs had their force bludgeoned out of them years ago by constant repetition on classic-rock stations. They dont even register anymore, except to suggest that the car manufacturer has pedestrian taste (or thinks we do).
But even though "At Last" still had the power to reach out of the small TV speaker and grab us, the blues sometimes seems as sapped of energy as those classic rock tunes. Its everywhere these days and its been used to sell everything from banking to macaroni & cheese. If the blues had a corporate face, it might be the House of Blues, the American chain of upscale restaurants and clubs. Etta Jamess new disc, Burnin Down the House, was recorded at the House of Blues on Sunset Strip, where the parking lot was probably filled with luxury cars and SUVs. Its a very modern live blues album, right down to its digital recording.
James is backed by a crack band on Burnin Down the House -- the five-piece horn section is especially sharp. Shes in good voice throughout. Her sons, Donto James on drums and Sametto James on bass, lay down as solid a foundation as any blues band could ask for. Yet the disc never seems to catch fire. Theres an oddly subdued feel to it, as if the folks in the non-smoking section were afraid they might breathe some secondhand smoke if they got up to dance.
A few miscalculations early on set the tone. The guitar solo that signals Jamess appearance is played through an overdrive pedal and it feels more rock than blues. The song it leads into, "Come to Mama," has a tight, Hi Records groove, but the spell is again broken by the guitarist, who, after two verses, plays another rock-based solo. These errors might be forgivable, but the next track is an arrangement of "I Just Want to Make Love to You" that has more in common with Foghats 1972 recording (a classic-rock staple) than it does with Ms. Jamess own previous versions. Worst of all, Ms. James and her band segue from that song into -- brace yourself, now -- "Born to Be Wild."
Things improve considerably after those gaffes. I think its telling that the best things on Burnin Down the House might not be strictly defined as blues. Ms. James sounds looser and more relaxed on songs like "All the Way Down" or "You Can Leave Your Hat On" than she does on the two songs that follow a traditional blues structure. I dont know if she feels reigned in by the blues or if she feels that the form is limited by its current audiences expectations. Whatever the reason, her performances on "I Just Want to Make Love to You" and "Rock Me Baby" are perfunctory. You can hear her off-mike just before "I Just Want to Make Love to You" telling the band "Lets go! Lets go!" as if she wanted to get the song out of the way.
Any doubts about Ms. Jamess ability to bring a song to life are dispelled by her performance here of "Sugar on the Floor." An entirely forgettable tune from the '70s, James goes down deep to find meaning in it, convincing us that theres so much more than the bland melody and merely passable lyrics seem to contain. Other performances, such as "Your Good Thing is About to End" and "Id Rather Go Blind" -- blues songs that are not as well known as the two I mentioned above -- show a singer in full command of her talent. These songs give Ms. James the chance to express real feelings instead of the clichés that blues audiences seem to expect.
In 1971, Peter Guralnick foresaw what mass acceptance would do to the blues. Writing in Rolling Stone, he stated flatly, "Blues is going to have a hard time surviving." He went on to describe the musics growing popularity with young white audiences (" just a lot of kids sitting around smoking reefers," Muddy Waters told him) and how blues festivals were " another step in an inevitable process that will turn the music into a museum piece. What I think is clearly missing is any sense of place, any feeling for the context in which the blues must thrive."
A comparison of Burnin Down the House with Jamess 1963 live recording for Argo Records, Etta James Rocks the House, illustrates Guralnick's point. The earlier recording was done in a Tennessee club on a reel-to-reel tape recorder with, legend has it, a single mike. Technically, the recordings a mess. There are a couple of drop-outs, theres tape hiss, the noise of the crowd threatens at times to drown out the band. And yet it lives and breathes in a way that the later, far more technologically advanced recording never does. The crowd exhorts James, encourages her, stays with her during every second of the discs 43 minutes. The recording on Rocks the House even has a more spacious, open feel than the new disc -- you feel as if you could walk into it and smell the cigarette smoke and stale beer.
The audience for Burnin Down the House in 2001 is a fairly affluent one that wants to be entertained. The 1963 audience for Etta James Rocks the House was working class folks looking for a few hours respite from the drudgery of unrewarding jobs and the crushing humility of segregation. People who pump gas or work in a factory line want their entertainers to work hard. Its not just a matter of race, either. Ive played in biker bars on a Saturday night where 2:00AM came and things were still going loud and strong. When a band does work hard in a room like that, the audience pays it back -- they shout, they pound the table, they dance, they fill the room with a force that makes you work even harder.
Sometimes the best blues and rock and roll just isnt about gentility. I dont wish for a minute that blues singers would return to the chitlin circuit and have to scrape out a living. But it would have been nice if the audience at the House of Blues had come to Etta James on her terms, instead of expecting her to come to them on theirs.
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