Matriarch Of The Blues
Private Music Records, 2000
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/20/2000
I never thought I'd become the referee in a blues "grudge match".
In this corner, claiming the title of "Queen Of The Blues," is Chicago's pride and joy, Koko Taylor.
And, in this corner, claiming the title of Matriarch Of The Blues, is living legend Etta James.
Both women have released new albums in 2000; both women have faced professional and personal hardships over the years. Both women's albums have included at least one cover tune. But there's a difference between James's new release and Taylor's: James's is far more listenable. (Our review of Taylor's Royal Blue can be found in the Archives.)
I'll admit, I questioned some of the covers on Matriarch Of The Blues, especially when you consider that this is more of an early r&b album, and not pure blues. (Then again, James was one of the earliest stars of r&b.) Much to my surprise and delight, James was able to put some interesting spins on these, and only faltered once.
Take her cover of Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody". Maybe it's because I am not that familiar with Dylan's work from that period of his career (gimme a break, I'm still in the '60s with Dylan, and falling further behind by the day), but James is able to take this song and make it sound like a lot of fun. Same goes with her take on The Rolling Stones's "Miss You," though I wonder what the Puerto Rican references have to do with anything.
The only slip is on Credence Clearwater Revival's "Born On The Bayou". This version neither stays close enough to the roots of the song nor solidly puts forth its own path. The end result is a bit choppy.
Matriarch Of The Blues contains some great material, such as James's take on cuts like "Rhymes," "Let's Straighten It Out" and "Come Back Baby". But there is the occasional misstep, like "Hawg For Ya" - I don't even want to begin to imagine the meaning behind this one. Fortunately, the missteps are few, and James comes out at the end of the disc with her legend intact.
In reality, both women have equal claim to their respective titles, but James happened to put out the more solid album this year in Matriarch Of The Blues. Having sons Donto and Sametto James produce the disc (as well as play in her band) helped matters; after all, who better to know the family business than your own flesh and blood? All in all, this is a pretty solid disc which should please fans of good r&b... as well as the blues.