Etta James

The Dreamer

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Apparently, Etta James' musical career ends with The Dreamer. The legendary vocalist announced a few months back that this would be her final album; she's retiring from music in order to deal with serious medical issues. Co-produced by James, Josh Sklair, and her sons Danto and Sametto, The Dreamer's 11 tracks offer an imperfect but utterly worthy portrait of the places she's been musically with a couple of selections that reveal her dictum that "every song is a blues." Her signature meld of soul, blues, rhythm & blues, rock, and country are all on display here. The production underscores her lifelong commitment to these styles and suits the material at large. Her musical accompanists include not only her co-producers, but guitarists Leo Nocentelli and Big Terry de Rouen, saxophonist Jimmy Z., trombonist Kraig Kilby, and trumpeter Lee Thornburg. Ms. James' choice of material is rigorous even if two of its selections are questionable: the cover of Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" doesn't lend itself well to the choogling boogie arrangement here; and the funkified reading of contemporary country stars Little Big Town's "Boondocks" sounds like she tried too hard to make it fit. These cuts aside, the rest of the material is vintage; it reflects the work of Ms. James' influences and contemporaries. Her readings of Otis Redding's "Cigarettes & Coffee" and "Champagne & Wine," Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Dreamer," Bob Montgomery's country-pop standard "Misty Blue," Ray Charles' "In the Evening," Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "That's the Chance You Take" and "Too Tired," and Little Milton's "Let Me Down Easy" all contain within them not only their original traces, but the musical experience necessary to bring their subtler, deeper meanings to the fore. She re-creates these songs not as mere touchstones or mementos from a career, but as signposts to the living, breathing tradition that bears the signature and considerable influence of her life upon them. The Dreamer is a fitting -- if not perfect -- bookend to one of American popular music's most iconic lives.

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