Etta, Red-Hot & Live

by: Etta James

Even the company that released this live recording by Etta James is unclear on the precise date (or even the year) of the performance itself -- late '70s/very early '80s is as far as anyone involved will seemingly commit, which isn't too much of a risk, given that it sounds too good to be any earlier, and that some offhanded phrases made during the show didn't exist too much earlier, and that the first incarnation of this release turned up in 1982. What is clear is that James herself is in absolutely top form through and through, in a killer (and uncensored) performance -- she's like a force of nature when she starts to intone the actual songs, and her introductions are also a marvel of freewheeling spontaneity. This is one of those rare occasions when the tape machines seem to have been running on just the right night -- though precisely why the tapes for this performances have been edited in the manner in which they are presented here is the major vexing problem of this release. All of the songs fade down abruptly, rather than actually ending. And the latter is a key reason why this album doesn't get a much, much higher rating; the listener will only feel terrible disappointment on obviously missing some important moments ending James' rendition of the opener, the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself." There's hardly a song here that wouldn't constitute a highlight on any album, but the makers cheat listeners with these fast fades, and in doing so reduce the value of the entire album. That said, James is a marvel in the 90 to 95 percent of each song that is here, in lung-bursting glory on "Dust Your Broom" and all surging, explosive power elsewhere. The programming is also well devised, with slow and simmering numbers like "I'd Rather Go Blind" and "Drown in My Own Tears" alternating with exuberant shouters like "Can't Turn You Loose." Flaws and all, this is still worth hearing, but not quite as essential as it would otherwise be if all of the songs were complete. On a plus side, the 2004 CD reissue, remastered in 24-bit digital audio, is a powerful listening experience, even for those already familiar with the album -- and that makes the editing of the tape even more frustrating. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi

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