To pay tribute to any artist by releasing an album covering their songs is a brave step. The kicker is that any artist worth paying tribute to is usually a one-off, an utter original – in effect, uncopyable. When the artist is Etta James, the brave step veers close to kamikaze.
James was a restless, troubled and driven soul, who blazed through a wild and rocky career, bouncing from gospel to blues to rock and roll, writing the book on cap-S Soul styling along the way. To pay tribute to such a chimeric and meteoric talent in a meaningful way is a tall ask.
But, if the tribute is done with love and a sense of celebration – as Darren Percival recently did with his Ray Charles album – it can work like a charm.
Sydney soul singer, Alex Hahn‘s new release The Wallflower – named for the ‘polite’ renaming of James’ sexually explicit ‘Roll With Me Henry’ (which appears here) – works. In fact it works like a fucking voodoo charm.
Hahn – one of Sydney music’s best kept secrets – has put together one hell of an album covering all of the styles that Etta James chewed up and spat out in her career of almost six decades. From the rolling blues of ‘Baby What You Want Me to Do?’ (with its growling vocalese solo) through the boppin’ rock’n’roll of ‘Tough Lover’ and minor key gospel of Randy Newman‘s ‘God’s Song’, Hahn and her band never hit a weak spot.
A mention here needs to go to the band – The Blue Riders – who easily capture the vibe of the song, be it a pumping Motown strut like opener ‘Tell Mama’ (Janis Joplin also paid tribute to Etta with her own version in the early 70s), or the evergreen (everblue?) Etta James staples, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ or shimmering alum closer ‘At Last’ (special mention here – and across the whole record – to guitarist Charlie Meadows who reads the songs’ intent and vibe beautifully; limpid or bullying accompaniment could kill these tunes, and he shines on every track).
But of course, it is Alex Hahn who has taken the kamikaze step – it is her voice and the sincerity behind her delivery on which The Wallflower will be judged. While it would be unfair – and missing the point – to directly compare these tracks to Etta James’ versions, one rightly expects the same tough/soft, fiesty/sweet, rockin’/weepin’ complexities (the same that go for all the greats such as Bille Holliday and Joplin) to be preserved in Hahn’s interpretations.
And this is where the sense of celebration comes in and entirely vindicates The Wallflower project. It is one thing to get the music and groove right and replicate towering songs such as these – but it is merely replication, cover versions in the most base sense.
It is entirely another to generate the passion, insecurities, bruises and lionheart of a truly iconic performer such as Etta James and to let that blaze up through the blues or rock or gospel or whatever format the songs take. Alex Hahn with The Blue Riders have done it on The Wallflower, painting a bright and vivid portrait of a multi-dimensional artist in the best way possible – with their own voice.
Alex Hahn launches The Wallflower this Sunday, September 1st, at the Roxbury Glebe from 6.30pm.
Alex Hahn’s website is www.alexhahn.com.au
Published August 2013 on theorangepress.net