Etta James scared James Brown into playing the best show (of many!) I ever saw him do. Everything seemed wrong, too. The show in the early 1980s was in Albany’s Empire State Plaza Convention Center with its strange geometry, low ceilings, muddled sound and odd sightlines. And both Brown and James were in career lows. But when I heard that guitarist Leo Nocentelli of the Meters — New Orleans’ best band between Little Richard’s Upsetters (or maybe Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns) and the Neville Brothers — was in James’ touring band, things started looking up.
Determined to meet Nocentelli, I evaded the loose security and slid backstage. Just inside the first dressing room sat James Brown, reading the Bible with valet Danny Ray (one of his jobs was to wrap capes around the seemingly emotionally overcome singer to lead him offstage) and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Brown wore a bathrobe, bright plastic curlers in his hair.
When I asked for Etta James’ dressing room, Brown took my elbow, led me down the corridor and knocked on her door. She opened it herself, dressed like Brown in terry cloth robe, rollers in her hair. Brown brought me in and made introductions, my eyes darting around to Nocentelli, tuning a red guitar in a banker’s suit and a 1970s Afro. James was welcoming and warm, down to earth but regal. We talked about singing, her voice, her songs and her projects. She was upbeat and confident, and more gracious than I deserved about introducing me to Nocentelli when I said I admired and wanted to meet him.
Filling room with soul
Onstage, transformed into an elegant and electric presence, she was soulfulness itself. Her voice was flexible and strong, but that was maybe the least of it. She made the music sonically huge with room for everybody inside it, but human in scale because feeling so completely filled it.
Nocentelli was the treat I’d hoped he’d be — the Meters guys always are: keyboardist Art Neville, bassist George Porter and drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste — and the rest of her band was, too.
Her opening set was so strong that Brown took a long time coming to the stage. Giving the crowd time to forget how amazing she was? He was musically all business and at his fiery, flamboyant best as an entertainer. He made moves I hadn’t seen him try in years and never saw him do again.
I think he knew he had to, or everybody there would have remembered how Etta James stole the show.
Etta James died Friday at 73 after a decades-long career plagued by health problems. Her mentor Johnny Otis died last Tuesday at 90.
Born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes in what he regarded as a genetic accident, Otis immersed himself in black culture as disc jockey, bandleader, songwriter and talent scout, discovering Etta James, Jackie Wilson, Little Esther Phillips, Hank Ballard, Little Willie John and, right under his own roof, the tremendous underrated guitarist Shuggie Otis.
James Brown was the Godfather of Soul, but Otis was revered as the Godfather of Rhythm & Blues. Musicians and fans alike held him in such high esteem that a reunion-tribute show I caught in Los Angeles in 1985 was one of the most remarkably affectionate music love feasts I’ve ever seen.
The cast included Shuggie Otis, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and others I can’t recall. I was there for fun, and it was, and not to report. But the vibe was truly unforgettable.
Wrembel plays Django
We all may have heard jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel before knowing his name: The French-born disciple of Django Reinhardt made much of the music in Woody Allen’s films “Vicky Christina Barcelona” and “Midnight in Paris.” Wrembel is ready for the spotlight on his own: He brings his Django A Go-Go Festival to The Egg tonight.
This tribute features numerous guitarists, including Howard Alden (who played in Allen’s film “Sweet and Lowdown”), plus violinists, a bassist, a drummer and maybe a guy playing musical saw.
Show time is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $24. Phone 473-1845 or visit www.theegg.org.
Wrembel will also conduct a guitar workshop at 3:30 p.m. at Jack’s Place (named for the late, great area guitarist Jack Fragomeni) at The College of Saint Rose Hearst Center for Communications and Interactive Media (996 Madison Ave., Albany). It’s free and open to the public.
Jazz guitar fans’ heads might explode if the Frank Vignola-Vinny Raniolo duo show (Saturday, Feb. 4 at the Eighth Step at Proctors GE Theater) happened this weekend, too.
Old Songs folk sampler
The Old Songs (37 S. Main St., Voorheesville) Sampler Concert lines up top area talent on Saturday in a benefit for the Old Songs Festival in June. The benefit features Low ’N Lonesome, Mark & Ron, the Rebecca Angel Band, Bill Spence & George Wilson, Alien Folklife and the Grafton Street Trio. It includes a raffle of craft items by Old Songs artisans and a bake sale. Admission is $20 for adults, $5 for children 12 and under. Phone 765-2815 or visit www.oldsongs.org.
Range is the name of the game of the vast and versatile Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber, which kicks off Proctors Party Horns NYC series on Saturday at the GE Theater (432 State St., Schenectady). Bill Bragin of Lincoln Center wrote they “mash up funk, jazz, Black rock, dub, electronic beats into their own futuristic stew,” and they claim as inspirations Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, Parliament/Funkadelic and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. A current roster numbers more than 20 and is labeled as partial, so this should be a bigger band than Wrembel’s crew.
Show time is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20. Phone 382-3884 or visit www.proctors.org.
Guitarist/singer Popa Chubby — who resembles a hyperinflated Ed Hamell — brings a band to the Van Dyck (237 Union St., Schenectady) on Friday for two shows, after two solo shows here. Bassist AJ Pappas and drummer Chris Reddan should help open up Popa Chubby’s sound into a power trio like Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble and many more.
Shows are at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $17 in advance, $20 on Friday. Phone 348-7999 or visit www.vandycklounge.com.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at email@example.com.