Either Etta James has come back to life or Vika Bull is just that damn good.
That’s the only sane conclusion I could come to after seeing her in ‘At Last – The Etta James Story’ at QPAC on Saturday night (19 Nov). Dressed in simple black and backed by the seven-piece Essential R&B Band, Vika belted out two hours of classic Etta in a touching and respectful tribute to the late soul legend.
The applause from the crowd as the band took their positions on the sparsely set exploded into a raucous din as Vika entered. Starting off with ‘Tell Mama’, Vika and the band embarked on a musical journey through Etta’s life, starting from her down-and-out childhood in Los Angeles.
Between songs, Vika regaled the audience with Etta’s incredible story, ably narrated by trumpeter Tibor Gyapjas. Tales of writing hit songs, touring with Chess Records legends and struggling with the reality of a real blues musician were interwoven with songs that spanned her extensive back-catalogue.
From doo-wop (‘Roll With Me Henry’) to big-brass swinging blues (‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’) and of course her signature classic, ‘At Last’, Vika hit the highs, the lows and everything in-between. Her vocal ability is truly impressive, if not downright spooky at times; with your eyes closed, it’s near impossible to tell who does Etta better.
Although Vika was an indisputable goddess of soul on the evening, in all fairness, the Essential R&B Band were as much the stars of the show as Vika or Etta herself. These are an ensemble of incredibly talented and well-honed musicians who played with an intimate knowledge of the songs.
The major drawcard for this show, aside from the music, is that Vika isn’t playing the character of Etta James. It isn’t a gaudy recollection of Etta’s story that overplays the dramas in her life at the expense of her music, nor is it a ‘behind the blow’-style account. The production focussed on the aspects of her life which made Etta the incredible performer she was, for better or worse.
The audience responded in kind to the affectionate tribute, delivering a standing ovation which coaxed Vika and the band back on-stage for a one-song encore. You’d be hard-pressed to find a face that wasn’t smiling as the full house emptied into the foyer and out into the night. A truly powerful and memorable performance.
‘At Last – The Etta James Story’ makes its UK premiere in 2017. Stay tuned for venues and dates.
Bury St. Edmunds