July 18, 2012
By Ernest Barteldes
As the lights went down, the voice of the late James Brown came on with his trademark screams and grooves. About a minute later, Leela James came on stage with her band (backing vocalist, keyboards, drums, bass, and electric guitar) and thanked the audience for showing up even after a major storm hit the town earlier in the evening. The band immediately kicked into an up-tempo funky number that got people moving – the lyrics were simple, basically about having a good time, and she danced on stage and egged the audience to get up, clap their hands and dance. Without much of a break, she went straight on to “Soul Food,” a rock-tinged tune in which her guitarist launched into a very electric solo.
She mentioned that the show was intended to ‘pay homage’ to the soul singers that came before her (she is releasing In The Spirit of Etta James later this summer on Shanachie), and immediately went into James Brown’s “It’s a Man Man’s World,” a song she recorded on 2009’s Let’s Do It Again (Shanachie). Her treatment wasn’t too different from Brown’s original arrangement save for her signature interpretation, and she brought the house down. She followed that with a very personal take on No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” which had a heavier, guitar-driven arrangement when compared to the original recording.
James briefly left the stage and came back with more funk/soul-oriented material – she brought a number of fans to the stage and did a coordinated dance that kept the energy up. Later in the set, she criticized the current state of the music business, saying that “real music doesn’t need anything behind it. Back in the day you had to record it through – nowadays, you just push a button and your vocals sound like a diva.”
She kept encouraging audience participation, doing a brief version of the Rolling Stones’ “I Miss You” with lyrics changed to “I love music,” when she and the band conducted a ‘contest’ of sorts to see which side of the audience sang along the loudest.
Things slowed down as she played a number of ballads, when Leela had the opportunity to stretch her vocal chops while her band members exercised their dexterity with more improvised grooves. She then left the stage a second time, returning for a three-song encore that ended with a dance-inflected groove in which she joined fans on the ground, saying that she “likes to be with the people.” She danced with her fans for a few minutes and then left as the band ended the song with gusto.
It was a memorable performance – but then again Leela James always impresses with her seemingly endless energy and fantastic charisma. We can’t wait to see her when she showcases her Etta James tribute album in a live format.