Etta James at The B.B. King Blues Club

Etta James


B.B. King Blues Club, July 18, 2002:


       I bring my wife Kathleen to the B.B. King Blues Club for the first time. Although Ariel Publicity has always gotten me on the guest list as ‘plus one’, I have previously come alone. Thanks again to Ariel Publicity for all their support. We take the train into Manhattan on a sweltering hot summer afternoon. We walk the last ten blocks in rush hour crowds. We wait outside on line for an hour, get a number to be called from, and go downstairs to the bar to wait our turn. We are number three.

       We sit at one of the larger tables in the second row of tables, but we are right on the front end. This is the best vantage point for the two of us to enjoy the show and for me to do tonight’s review. We soon meet a very interesting couple from right here in New York City, Rita and Waldo. They reside in Brooklyn Heights and Waldo works in Manhattan. Rita and Waldo are obviously professionals, who are very knowledgeable, well traveled, and easy to talk to. Waldo has been following Etta James since he was a teenager. Rita and Waldo make a very handsome couple together. Our conversation is lengthy and very intellectually stimulating. Dennis is serving us tonight. He was studying to be a teacher, heading toward his doctorate, then changed career direction to be an actor. He is attentive, patient, and resilient throughout challenging customer demands. The food is excellent, as always, and the service is top shelf. The club is sold out with standing room only. This is the largest crowd that I have EVER seen here at this club. Customers are lining the entire back wall, from one end to the other. Amazing !!!!!!!!

       The opening band is: Tony Furtado & the American Gypsies. They are a quartet consisting of acoustic/electric guitar & banjo, electric guitar, bass and drums. The opening tune, “Staggerlee,” executes an upbeat 4/4-tempo with the drummer, Tom Breckline, utilizing brushes to establish a quieter attack level. Tony Furtado and electric guitarist, Gawain Matthews, sing tight, accompanying two part vocal harmonies immediately. Tony plays excellent slide and finger style acoustic guitar. Gawain takes a superior electric guitar lead break featuring octaves. The two guitarists demonstrate unison playing to showcase this interesting melody. Song two is a staggered 4/4-tempo in a New Orleans style. This tune is a strong instrumental with a long lead-in by Tony on his Gibson electric guitar. Tony again demonstrates excellent slide and finger style guitar proficiency, this time in the electric mode. Gawain takes a strong lead on his Ibenez electric. The bass player, Patrice Blanchard, is excellent and exudes inner confidence with his smile. The next number is a solid up-beat rocker featuring tight two part vocal harmonies.  Tony again excels on the acoustic slide guitar. The drummer, Tom Breckline, really gives this tune a kick by playing nice right hand triplets on his ride cymbal. Gawain plays a tremendous soft touch jazzy lead guitar break and Patrice is as solid as a rock on the bass. This is a very tight band arrangement. Tom sings the refrain, “Oh Me, Oh Lordy My,” although the song is never introduced.

       Song number four is, “St. John’s Fire.” Tony plays a smokin’ banjo. Tom utilizes the reverse stick left hand, on the drums. Gawain again plays an excellent ‘touch’ lead on his electric guitar, very tasteful. This tune is a solid rocker, as the band’s repertoire gets stronger and stronger. The next tune is another excellent instrumental. Gawain takes an extended magnificent lead guitar break. Tony executes an amazing banjo lead as well. Tony demonstrates clever and interesting banjo finger style attack complimented by guitar-like leads on the banjo. These guitarists are exceedingly accomplished players. Song six features an open-tunes C chord and is called, “Bottle of Hope.” This tune features Tony playing a slow and graceful acoustic finger style slide guitar, showcasing a very interesting and tasteful melody. Gawain plays a super slick lead guitar part featuring excellent phrasing, choice melodic riffs, and a solo ‘delay’ effect on his amplifier. The song reaches a crescendo with the two-part ‘touch’ unison guitar playing of Tony and Gawain. The next tune is super up-tempo. I believe the title is, “Promise of a Better Day.” The drummer, Tom, plays rolls on the snare like a freight train. This percussive technique is tremendously effective in pushing the song into high gear. Tony is again on acoustic guitar and jells nicely with Gawain, to attain a superior two part vocal harmony. Gawain takes a tremendous lead guitar break. This is a super, super tight band arrangement.

       Song eight is, “Oh Berta, Berta,” off the new CD, “American Gypsy.” This is an up-tempo 2/4 time signature number featuring Tony on the electric guitar with a fuzz effect. Tony sings lead vocals on this interesting tune. Gawain takes an excellent lead break on his Ibenez guitar. Tony and Gawain again execute tight two-part guitar riffs that totally compliment each other readily. The bass player, Patrice Blanchard, who has been solid throughout this set, really stands out on this number.

       Tony Furtado & the American Gypsies put on an excellent show here tonight. The set featured tremendous vocals and vocal harmonies, outstanding two-part guitar arrangements, and banjo and guitar solos that excel. Tom Breckline is an outstanding drummer who totally compliments the band’s overall sound. The bassist is tremendous throughout the gig. I can always judge the caliber of the band by the quality of the bassist and Patrice Blanchard was excellent, and proved me right again.

       The Etta James Band (the ROOTS band) takes the stage at 9:09 P.M. They break into a swing intro tune that is both brassy and ballsy. There are eight pieces: 2 guitarists, trombone, trumpet, saxophone, drums, bass and keyboards. The keyboardist comes with an electronic keyboard and a Hammond B-3, and THAT IS good news. The first lead guitarist takes a great lead break, then the tenor saxophone man takes a wailin’ solo, and then the trombonist hits it hard as well. There are dynamic stops for effect. The band plays strong and clear. Then the keyboardist takes a tremendous solo. The B-3 sound is fat and robust. This piano man is really kickin’ it!!! He has his right foot up on the keyboard, and then he is playing with his nose. He has tremendous facial expressions and plays with complete abandon!!!! 

       Before Etta takes the stage, another singer is introduced for our enjoyment, Aaron Canis. He is a musician Etta wants us to get to know. He breaks into the Marvin Gaye tune, “What’s Goin’ On.” He is both soulful and sensuous. His rendition is top quality and the audience is very appreciative. His second number is, “The Masquerade Is Over.” This tune is a slow ballad with complex chordal changes. The vocal delivery is slow and deliberate and delicately placed throughout the melodic phrasing. There is a great flugelhorn solo to compliment this tasteful musical number.

       At 9:37 P.M. The Etta James Band breaks into a heavy and solid downbeat 4/4-tempo piece that is forceful and strong. Etta James now takes the stage and gets right into a heavy first number called, “Come To Mama.” Etta lets it all hand out on this very first musical contribution. The band attack is heavy, strong and gutsy. Etta is sexual and provocative, to say the least!!!! Her facial expressions and hand gestures say it all. There is no hiding the feeling or alluding to the message intended. At one point, she sucks her big thumb very expressively and states unequivocally, “Let me be your pacifier!” We all roar and yell and scream, “You go girl.” This amazing first song blows the entire crowd away.


Etta James


Photo: ©A.J. Alfaro

       Etta’s Second number is, “I’d Rather Go Blind.” This is one of her biggest hits. This is a slow ballad full of expressive passion. The keyboardist compliments Etta’s vocals with Hammond B-3 melodic flourishes. The drummer uses the left hand reverse stick for succinct rhythmic control. This number is again sensuous, suggestive, sexual and graphic. The band becomes super quiet for dynamic effect.


Etta James


Photo: ©A.J. Alfaro

       Etta James combines extremely interesting personal narration into each and every song. Before the third number, she goes into her background about her voice. She was a Contralto in high school. People would ask, “How did you learn to sing like that?” Her lover and friend was Johnny “Guitar” Watson. She describes some of her feelings toward him and then breaks into, “I Wanna’ Tie, Tie You Baby.” This is a slow blues that’s very sensual. The song contains a great narrative story delivery. The first lead guitarist, Josh Sklair, on a white stratocaster, takes a fiery lead break to honor Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Etta proceeds to touch herself on the bosom and in the groin in expressive ecstasy. She exhibits a huge vocal capacity on this one. The second lead guitarist, Bobby Murray, takes an excellent solo as well. Etta gets to growlin’, “Tie, tie you baby!” She lets it all hand out.


Josh Sklair (band leader)


Photo: ©A.J. Alfaro

       Song four is the great, great Etta James standard, “At Last.” Etta gives this tune a long narrative intro for total effect. To say the least, she is milking this one for all it’s worth. The capacity crowd loves this number and swoons. Etta hits some of the night’s fattest low notes here. The band performs a fantastic chart arrangement as well. The vocal phrasing is complimented by Hammond B-3 flourishes and the horn section also plays close accompanying phrasing to her vocals. The entire band demonstrates tremendous dynamic control.


Etta James


Photo: ©A.J. Alfaro

       Song five is a 50’s style number called, “Let It Roll.” Etta says this tune is from the 1959 – 1960 era. She talks to her son Donto, “Bring the roll out of the Pro-tools.” The song is slow and deliberate, a tight 50’s chart. The band accompaniment is succinct and subtle. This is an excellent period piece of music.

       Song six is titled, “All I Could Do Is Cry.” This tune is a slow gospel progression filled with emotion and a great story telling narrative delivery. Etta puts her whole heart and soul into this delivery and lets it all out on the stage for us to see and feel. The next number is a featured band tune. The harmonica player, Jimmy “Z”, takes an amazing solo, then the first guitarist, Josh Sklair, steps up for a smokin’ solo of his own, the second guitarist, Bobby Murray, steps right in front of us to wail on his guitar. He is on his knees, at one point, for the complete effect. The harmonica player takes an even hotter second solo that takes us all completely OUT!


Jimmy "Z" and Bobby Murray


Photo: ©A.J. Alfaro

       Song eight is Etta’s venture into the disco era. This tune is called, “All The Way Down.” There is strong Curtis Mayfield influence here. The tune has a Latin flavor and strong disco influence. The entire group has a funky band ensemble approach here. The band executes a wide dynamic range from loud and funky to a quiet chordal touch. The drummer, Donto James, utilizes the left hand reverse stick for succinct rhythmic effect. The keyboardist throws in some Herbie Handcock piano riffs to correctly flavor the arrangement.

       The next tune is, “Something’s Got A Hold On Me.” This song is super hot, hot, hot, big and brassy. This tune has a slow intro leading up to an up-beat 4/4 solid main section. The next musical arrangement is a medley of tunes: “Love & Happiness,” “Take Me To The River,” and “My Funny Valentine.” The band kicks up through these great numbers. The keyboardist, Dave K. Mathews, cleverly places B-3 flourishes appropriately, for effect. During “My Funny Valentine,” there is an outstanding muted trumpet solo. Etta hits some of her highest, loudest emotional singing notes here. The delivery is strong but loose. The band kicks out into full throttle to carry this medley away!

       Etta introduces the band:

Trombone: Fred Kilby

Trumpet & Flugelhorn: Tom Poole

Harmonica & Saxophone: Jimmy “Z” Zavala

Drums: Donto Metto James (oldest son)

Bass: Sametto James (youngest son)

Keyboards: Dave K. Mathews

First Guitar (band leader): Josh Sklair

Second Guitar: Bobby Murray

       The last song, “Sugar On The Floor,” is dedicated to her recently departed mother. This song has a slow gospel intro featuring the entire band together. Etta is near tears. This is a tremendous ballad from deep within her soul illustrating genuine and sincere symbolism. Etta wails, “ How ya gonna’ know what it feels like to be down on the floor.”


Etta James


Photo: ©A.J. Alfaro

       Etta puts on a stupendous performance tonight at The B.B. King Blues Club. She did not hold back a single emotion, facial expression or physical gesture. Etta lets it all hang out for us here tonight. The band is exemplary together and soloing. They are great, great musicians; each and every one. I have waited years and years to hear this great artist and now I can say I have seen an American treasure. AMEN! I had a feeling this was a night to bring my special lady, my wife Kathleen, and I was completely correct.

       AMAZING SHOW!  


Etta James


Photo: ©A.J. Alfaro


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