When Toronto soul singer Jully Black proclaimed last night at Bluesfest a celebration of the human voice, she was right on the mark.
After strong opening sets by Black, John Lee Hooker Jr. and Ottawa's Alanna Stuart, her words rang especially true as the powerful pipes of Etta James soared across Festival Plaza, and the capacity crowd realized they were in the presence of a musical legend.
Although James has been on a comeback in recent years and a top- notch performance was expected, there were a few wrinkles in getting her to the stage last night. She missed soundcheck and was several minutes late arriving on stage. She finally made it around the same time as the deadline for this review.
Unfortunately, her drummer never made it across the border. Filling in for him was Ottawa drummer Ross Murray, who got the call at 2:30 yesterday afternoon and spent the next few hours learning the parts.
Opening for James was a big thrill for Toronto singer Jully Black, who was in a chatty mood during her turn on the main stage.
"It's a dream come true to know that Etta James is going to be walking out on this stage," she said to the crowd.
"I usually do a couple of Etta James songs, but Etta James is gonna make Jully look like (I'm) from the Fisher-Price school."
In a cute black-and-white sundress, the dynamic Black performed with a stripped-down band of two backing singers and a keyboardist instead of a lavish horn-laden lineup.
Although she could have used some stronger melodies in a couple of her songs, Black's assured vocals and warm personality made up for any gaps in entertainment value. She supported Canada's multicultural diversity, called for music education in schools and talked about her upbringing in Toronto's Jane and Finch area. Her mother raised nine children on a meagre pay cheque.
Most of Black's set came from her major-label debut, This is Me, with an emotion-filled version of I Travelled dedicated to the victims of this week's terrorist bombing in India. Also in the set was I Know, the song she wrote that was recorded by Destiny's Child.
Early in John Lee Hooker Jr.'s set, the slick-talking son of the legendary bluesman warned the crowd near the front of the stage that they might be spattered with grease.
"You see, we gonna be doing a whole lotta cooking up here tonight," he said, his timing as impeccable as his snazzy outfit. "You gonna cook with the Hook."
Sure enough, the singer lived up to his reputation as a sizzling showman. From the top of his fedora to the tips of his snakeskin boots, he had the look, the moves, the voice and the stories of a born entertainer.
The young Ottawa singer Alanna Stuart, in an eye-catching canary- yellow hot-pants outfit, demonstrated a natural instinct for old- school soul during her opening slot, with a song selection that blended classic material by the likes of Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin with her own original songs.
Accompanied by a full band, including horns and backup singers, she appeared a little nervous at first, clearly thrilled to be opening for the great Etta James, but at one point confessed that she was on the verge of tears to see her family next to the stage witnessing her big moment.
Despite the emotions, her multi-octave voice remained strong and confident, and Stuart couldn't restrain her enthusiasm once she warmed to the spotlight, finishing with a full-out strut through Bill Withers' Saturday Night in Harlem. It was a glorious moment for an up-and-coming talent.
Photo: Jean Levac, The Ottawa Citizen / Canadian soul singer Jully Black belts out a song during her performance at Cisco Systems Bluesfest yesterday. Black said opening for Etta James was 'a dream come true.'
(Copyright The Ottawa Citizen 2006)