At Last - The Etta James Story starring Vika Bull and The Essential R & B Band made its first performance in Edinburgh tonight at The Queen’s Hall. Pretty much anyone reading this review will have heard either of Etta James the singer, or at least have heard one of her many famous songs covered by one of so many different artists over the years, but who is Vika Bull, and what is this show?
Well then, the answer to those questions. Vika Bull has been one of the most distinctive voices of R & B/Gospel music throughout Australia and New Zealand for over 30 years, and ”The Black Sorrows” band that Vika was in with her sister Linda is still by many regarded as one of the major R & B bands of its time (both sisters left the band in 1994). This show, following its world premiere in Melbourne in 2013, has been a huge success not only in Australia and New Zealand but everywhere else in the world that it has played.
Any show of this nature is always going to be fighting against the “tribute band” tag as there are now so many variants on the theme out there at any time, and that is something that, although unfair, simply cannot be avoided here. There is a very important difference here though; yes, this show features the music of Etta James, yes, it tells the story of Etta’s life, but at no point in this show is Vika Bull ever trying to be Etta James either visually or vocally. Etta James and Vika Bull are two completely different singers, two completely different and individual voices. This show is simply one hugely talented singer and performer paying her musical tribute to one of the iconic voices and songwriters of her day. Sometimes on songs I personally prefer the Etta James arrangements and vocals, but other times, I actually prefer Vika’s, and the important thing about Vika Bull is that I would return to hear her singing anything that she wanted to anytime, not just Etta songs.
This show is not only the music of Etta, but an encapsulated history of her life, and it is not a sugar coated view of it. This is the story of Etta James from her humble and troubled beginnings to a life that from a very early age seemed destined to be one of singing. We touch on in this story some of the important highlights in her professional career and there were many; coming to the attention of Johnny Otis, signing to the legendary Chess label and touring with The Rolling Stones are only a few of them. Despite the highlights though Etta James seemed so often to be followed by her troubled early years, and addictions to alcohol, heroin and cocaine over many years took their toll on both her private and professional life. Like many other female performers of her day, Etta always seemed attracted to the people who were often the least suitable to provide the stability that she so badly needed in her life. Along the way though, and somewhat miraculously, Etta’s personal addictions never impacted with any major effect upon her singing voice and Etta famously continued to sing “when she wanted to” all of her life.
What a life though and what music, and it is the music that Vika Bull celebrates in vocal performance and power throughout this show as she moves effortlessly from heartfelt songs that can melt even the hardest of hearts, ballads, R & B classics and slick funk grooves. Watching Vika Bull perform is watching a powerhouse of vocals and energy come to life on-stage. All of the huge hits are here including “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” (originally released as “Just Make Love to Me”), “I'd Rather Go Blind” ,”Something's Got a Hold on Me” and of course “At Last” are here. Other great versions by Vika include “Down in The Basement”, “Sunday Kind of Love” and “Out on the Streets Again”.
Backing Vika all throughout the show are the always tight and very distinctive sounds of “The Essential R & B Band” who capture the energy and sounds of Etta’s music so well.
Many of the songs featured tonight are on the album of this show that I reviewed earlier at
The album is good, but nothing on the album really prepares you for the energy of the band live on stage and the vocal power that is Vika Bull.
A classic performance by any standards on stage tonight, and one that more than earned the appreciative applause of The Queen’s Hall audience here in Edinburgh.
Review by Tom King