In the spring of 1962, I heard "Something's Got a Hold on Me" on the radio, and ran out to Hollywood's legendary Wallach's Music City at Sunset and Vine to buy the "45" (ah, for the days of listening booths). I played that record endlessly, almost until the grooves were powder. I was Etta's biggest fan at Hollywood High, and remain a big fan while now enjoying my mature years. I was thrilled that Mr. Blake opened his show with that song, supported by three backup singers he referred to as his "Peaches" (in honor of Ms. James's first girl-group trio). From the initial lyric sung (or rather howled) by Mr. Blake, the first notes struck by the band, and the harmonized sound of the Peaches, I knew I was in for a great evening. I was not disappointed.
Personally, I am disinclined to appreciate "tribute shows," which can be long on sentiment and short on musicianship. Echoes of Etta avoided all that. Mr. Blake's comments about Etta were brief, sincere, and provided context -- and then it was on with the music. The band was comprised of true pros, and the energy just kept coming, from the opening song to "Good Rockin' Daddy," "The Wallflower (Roll with Me, Henry)," and "If I Can't Have You." Etta's ballads were given their moments with Mr. Blake offering fine renditions of, among others, "A Sunday Kind of Love" and "At Last," the latter preceded by a splendid intro by Matthew Polashek on the saxophone. Shira Elias, Ashley Betton, and Stephany Mora -- The Peaches -- got to showcase their sound during Mr. Blake's drop-dead version of "I'd Rather Go Blind." The Peaches were not just nice window dressing -- these gals can really sing!
Mr. Blake and the Peaches were supported by the solid and confident sound of the band. Oscar Bautista on guitar treated the audience to fine playing throughout, and several sailing solos. Mike Preen on bass, both standup and electric, provided a firm bass line foundation. Steve Kelly on drums provided "the beat," both rocking and quietly on the ballads. Matthew Polashek's sax rocked and mellowed with equal facility. Michael Thomas Murray on keyboards was just great, and his solo on the Fender-Rhodes really rocked the house. His arrangements were simply superb, giving a subtle contemporary lift to songs from another era.
From beginning to end, Echoes of Etta was a bust-out elating evening, rocking me in my seat to the up-tempo songs, or in rapt attention to the ballads. I have not had this kind of good time in a club, oh, since I don't know when.
Mr. Blake is an outrageously great vocalist, period. Other singers can learn the sonic mechanics of the howling, screaming, and moaning of the rhythm & blues tradition, they can get the gymnastics right, but they often lack Mr. Blake's authentic passion, sincerity, and feel for the music and lyrics. These are the key ingredients which put the "soul" in soul singing, and William Blake has got them all. - Jay Reisberg
Birdland is at 315 West 44th Street, New York, NY.
Photo by Derek Storm.
Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, and bon vivant at large.