Etta James had a troubled life. Before seeing Vika Bull and the Essential R&B Band perform at St George’s, Bristol, I couldn’t have told you that. At Last: the Etta James Story is a tribute to the great singer that intersperses the artist’s catalogue of well-known tunes with details of her journey through a world of parental neglect, abusive elders, wild times, failed relationships, chronic self-abuse, prison, rehab and a hell a lot of sublime music, some of which is beyond famous, even if you don’t realise you know it (till you hear it)
I had no idea, for example, that Etta began to sing in the choir of St Paul’s Baptist Church (LA) at the tender age of five, I was ignorant of the fact that she wrote that recorded-by-so-many classic ‘I Would Rather Go Blind” (or that she lost out on millions in royalties from it in a tax-evasion scam) and I had been unaware that Marvin Gaye was her one-time backing singer. But what an enjoyable way to find out!
Australian born Vika Bull is a huge admirer of the woman and her passion wraps itself around this audience as she belts out gospel, soul and blues, number after number, backed up by a magnificent seven piece band – trumpet, trombone, sax, guitar, bass, drums, vocals and piano. You can tell that the eight people on stage know each other very well; they have a rapport, a mutual understanding. Some of the evening’s highlights for me, though, are those soulful tunes where the band is less audible, such as ‘All I Could Do was Cry’, ‘Sugar on the Floor’ and ‘Fool that I am’, because here Vika’s powerful voice really shines through. This is to take nothing away from songs that display the collective brilliance of the band, for example their rendition of the crazily well-known ’It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ (“She could sing it because she believed it was the truth”), which delights every member of the audience – huge applause!
The title track, ‘At Last’, closes the performance and has the whole of St George’s up on its feet in a frenzied standing ovation. Deservedly.
This is a gig worth catching – being at once a history lesson in the life of a very talented woman, of her industry and the harsh realities of some of its biggest black stars and of the music. Always the music.
At Last: The Etta James Story is currently on tour
You can find out what else is showing at St George’s, Bristol, on their website.
Image by Veronica McLaughlin, with thanks