William Blake

June 9, 2012 | By | Add a Comment

“Echoes of Etta: A Tribute to Etta James”

Birdland – June 4

When a white male soul singer bursts onto the scene, a fair number of people probably sit back, arms crossed, and take an attitude of “Okay, this I gotta see.” Even in our multi-cultural age, such genre-crossing between the races is a rarity, greeted with some skepticism. There is a certain audacity in the performer who attempts it.

Now along comes William Blake, the sweet, baby-faced, and still-under-thirty vocal powerhouse, who has been steadily building up his fan base with his no-holds-barred concerts. Recently, he upped the audacity factor by devoting an entire concert in tribute to the iconic Etta James, who passed away earlier this year. This was a bold step even for a singer who last year released a very credible “Live from New York” concert CD, in which he covered such R&B stalwarts as Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, and Teddy Pendergrass. In his “Echoes of Etta” concert at Birdland, Blake took that step and then some: he established himself as a formidable singer of the blues. And while there are many imitative singers out there who ably mimic their idols’ vocal acrobatics, Blake is not one of them. He may have been widely influenced by James and other soul divas, but he is every bit his own man.

From the moment he took the stage with his five-piece band and three backup singers, Blake’s showmanship was fully evident. Wearing a suit and tie, he blew kisses to the crowd, grooved in sync with his backup girls, and displayed those masterful little tricks with the microphone and stand to show he had complete confidence in, and control of, his artistry. With his boyish appearance and speaking voice, one might still have had doubts, but those doubts were dispelled as soon as he let loose with those perfectly pitched gospel wails, howls and growls.

He got off to a high-energy start with James’s popular “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” (Etta James, Leroy Kirkland, Pearl Woods), immediately followed by “Good Rockin’ Daddy” (Joe Bihari, Richard Berry). He held nothing back, leaving one to wonder how he would keep up his stamina for an hour. A few minutes later, he gave his “Peaches”—James called her backup singers the Peaches—a break and traded vocal lines with his pianist, Michael Thomas Murray. When Blake leaned across the piano and stared into Murray’s eyes and turned up the heat with the lyric “The way you hug me, the way you squeeze me, the way you kiss me” (from “If I Can’t Have You” by Etta James and Harvey Fuqua), both went with it and one half expected to see clothes start flying off. It was a surprise to learn later that they are not a couple. Raw sensuality is Blake’s calling card. After a sizzling version of “I Just Want to Make Love to You” (Willie Dixon), a woman called out, “I want to have your baby!” Blake, recovering by mopping his forehead, smiled and politely said, “We can talk about it after the show.” Finally, he trumped himself yet again with “Damn Your Eyes” (Barbara Wyrick, Steve Bogard). I don’t know what possesses this guy, but by the climactic ending, he was raging, “Never lay a hand on me no more! Damn your eyes!” It was ferocious; the pussycat had become a lion. I don’t think Blake can or will be tamed. Looks can be deceiving.

Make no mistake: this is not hollering and carrying on. Blake’s vocal instrument is incredibly flexible and shows astonishing range, as evidenced by his treatment of “A Sunday Kind of Love” (Barbara Belle, Louis Prima, Anita Leonard, Stan Rhodes). About two-thirds of the way through the show, when he caressed Floyd Hunt’s “Fool That I Am” accompanied by just piano, the effect was mesmerizing, and those light, cascading notes were like tears trickling down the face.

Oddly enough, his rendition of James’s most famous song, “At Last” (Harry Warren, Mack Gordon), although vocally strong, was perhaps the least effective moment of the night. First, the song has been done so many times, it’s difficult for even the best singers to bring anything new to it; second, perhaps Blake hasn’t lived long enough to fully embody its sentiment. My sense is that he still has a lot of roiling waters in him, and songs that stir those up suit him best.

Blake closed with Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You,” including the little known verse. This was pared down, a simple, moving valentine to the sold out crowd that had come to see the show. When he sang, “I’m living in a kind of daydream, I’m happy as a king,” he almost choked up with emotion, and came closer still when the audience stood en masse to applaud his Herculean efforts. Nevertheless, he recovered and ended with a party, “Tell Mama” (Clarence Carter, Marcus Daniel, Wilbur Terrell), dancing on stage with his great band: Murray (piano, Fender Rhodes), Oscar Bautista (guitar), Mike Preen (bass), Steve Kelly (drums), Matthew Polashek (sax), and Shira Elias, Ashley Betton and Stephany Mora (the Peaches). A nice touch was the use of several voiceovers of Ms. James, herself, in interviews, which added a stamp of authority to the evening.

William Blake is a true original, someone who could turn a cabaret career into something much bigger. Judging by this concert, he is on the brink.

 

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Kevin Scott Hall performed in cabaret clubs for many years and recorded three CDs, including “New Light Dawning” in 1998, which received national airplay. He also worked at the legendary piano bar, Rose’s Turn, and has taught cabaret workshops and directed shows since 1995. Kevin earned his MFA in Creative Writing at City College of New York. He is an adjunct professor in the Theatre and English departments at City College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. His novel, “Off the Charts!” was published in 2010, and his memoir, “A Quarter Inch from My Heart” (Wisdom Moon), in 2014. Kevin writes a monthly column and entertainment features for Edge Media Network, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and freelances for other publications.

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