At Last: The Etta James Story
Reviewed – 22nd October 2018
“Bull sings her heart out, capturing the onstage aplomb of this charismatic performer”
Etta James was a legendary soul singer whose fight through a wild and desperate life gave her voice its inimitable, emotional power. The deep strength, rawness and pain in her singing, echoing her survival of a neglected childhood and pursuit of a successful career while living with drugs, violence and crime, may have prevented her from getting the commercial success she deserved, but she was acclaimed by the critics and loved by the many people struggling through their own troubles during a time of great social difficulty. She bridged the gap not only between rhythm and blues and rock and roll but also between the cultural and racial divide of the 1950s. From an early age, she worked with the likes of Johnny Otis, Ike and Tina Turner, Little Richard, Gladys Knight and, later, James Brown (to name but a few), released thirty albums and won six Grammys and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She later influenced such varied artists as Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, Christina Aguilera, Adele and Amy Winehouse.
Australian-born singer, Vika Bull, and The Essential R&B Band, pay homage to the talented and tempestuous James with a two-hour narrative musical. In an impressive tour de force, Bull and company cover twenty three songs with their own renditions of a range of her repertoire. Punctuated by James’s life story, told by Bull and the band’s trumpeter, Tibor Gyapjas, the first half recalls early rock numbers like ‘Tell Mama’, the popular ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’ (her only song to reach the UK top ten) and tear-jerking ‘All I Could Do Was Cry’. Guitarist Dion Hirini opens the second half with an exhilarating solo which introduces the raunchy ‘Come to Mama’; he also dons his stylish singing skills in the duet, ‘Spoonful’. The show continues with more favourites – the desolate ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, a touch of doowop with ‘In the Basement’, lilting ‘A Sunday Kind of Love’, and, of course, Etta’s signature song, ‘At Last’.
Unfortunately, the unbalanced sound level in the hall means that the band, particularly the drums, often overpower the vocals, solo and backing, and we miss the subtleties of the instrumental arrangements and of Bull’s interpretations, except in the quieter numbers. The projected backdrop slowly panning out during the evening gradually and disappointingly reveals a simplistic, photo-shopped image which fails to enhance such a poignant story, or create any relevant atmosphere.
Luckily, we are swept through a seductively contrasting collection of music from raucous rock to brooding ballads which delve inside the heart and soul of this passionate, defiant woman. Without, perhaps, the full, low timbre of Etta James herself, Bull sings her heart out, capturing the onstage aplomb of this charismatic performer, her restrained movements but intense presence. And receiving a spontaneous standing ovation from a packed Cadogan Hall, ‘At Last: The Etta James Story’ is proof of a definite crowd pleaser.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
Photography by Veronica McLaughlin
At Last: The Etta James Story