BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Two legends of Rhythm and Blues. Two classic concerts at Montreux. Two giants, both musically… and physically. Both sadly gone, but brought back to life through a pair of memorable DVDs.
Etta James and Solomon Burke were spawned from the same roots, the gritty days of the early ‘60s when “race music” was still a prevalent term when it came to describing Black artists working in a very specialised field and largely bereft of mainstream crossover. James’ road in particular had been a difficult one; a tangled relationship with her record label and the spectre of drug abuse clouded her early career, and despite a wealth of hits that were soon to be standards — “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “At Last” and “Tell Mama” being among them — her life was mired in difficulty and struggles with her personal demons. By the time she arrived at Montreux in the mid ‘70s, those troubles were mainly behind her, but the challenge of reestablishing herself amidst ensuing health problems would plague her for the remainder of her days.
Live at Montreux spotlights her 1993 performance at the famed venue, as well as snippets from archival concerts in ’75, ’78, ’89 and ’90. Her physical appearance changes considerably over time — by ’93 she’s so overweight that her mobility is clearly limited — and her various bands, especially early on, see some notable contributions in the persons of Herbie Mann, Rick Wakeman, John Paul Jones, drummer Steve Ferrone, David “Fathead” Newman. Richard Tee, and a very young Brian Ray, now of Paul McCartney’s band. Nevertheless, the power, fury and tenacity of her singing remains unrelenting, and the searing determination she invests in such songs as “Beware,” “Drown in my Own Tears” and “Just One More Day” — hell, every song in every set — is nothing short of remarkable.
For his part, Solomon Burke proves an equally formidable presence, and given his ability to captivate a crowd and hold them in sway proves utterly impressive even viewed from a distance. With the DVD seeming to start midway through a performance of what is presumably his first number, “Baby, What You Want Me To Do,” the excitement accelerates quickly. Relying on instinct, he sends his horn section out into the audience to rouse those who have yet to catch the vibe. His between song patter proves equally entertaining, and a tale about a party with famous friends Otis Redding, Ben E. King and Wilson Pickett, interspersed with some of their signature songs, provides one of the show’s many highlights. Burke’s physical size limits him to sitting in an oversize throne throughout, but his soulful gaze and unfettered expression of emotion — an unaccompanied prayer for peace, “We Live So Close To One Another” is particularly powerful — sustains the energy at an ever-accelerated pace. Suffice it to say, Burke’s Live at Montreux is a must-see show and as riveting and resounding as any recorded concert ever will be.
Though gone, sadly gone, James and Burke leave an indelible impression. Preserved here for posterity, it would be hard to cite a better requiem.