At Last: The Etta James Story at St David’s Hall, Cardiff by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Starring Vika Bull and the Essential R&B Band, this smash-hit Australian production tells the story of soul icon Etta James’ remarkable life and career through the incredible songs that have rightfully earned her six Grammys, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a place in history and our hearts.

This is the finest tribute to a musical legend I’ve seen since This is Elvis at the New Theatre; whereas that show dramatized it’s titular star’s two major comeback concerts in the style of a biopic, At Last: The Etta James Story punctuates an excellent narration of the singer’s tumultuous life with gems from her extraordinary musical repertoire – and it works beautifully.

Vika Bull’s effortless, extraordinary voice and charismatic performance achieves the almost unthinkable and does James justice. Along with her sumptuous vocals and charismatic narration, Bull possess that same raw gift of storytelling through song that set Etta apart, which is put to glorious effect in dazzling versions of I’d Rather Go Blind, All I Could Do Was Cry, and an absolutely staggering rendition of James Brown’s It’s a Man’s World. The titular At Last, arguably the most iconic song of Etta’s spectacular career, was so powerfully performed that the audience rose to their feet before the song was even finished.

Bull is supported by an amazing band, and her rapport with every musician was such a wonderful aspect of this production. The love for music was palpable between this talented bunch, and their enjoyment of performing Etta’s songs was palpable. Musical director John McAll, musical director on piano, Chris Bekker on bass guitar, Anton Delecca on saxophone – not to mention a joyous John Watson on drums, and Dion Hirini gloriously shredding that electric guitar like the lovechild of Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler. Ben Gillespie on trombone also duetted with Vika Bull on a fabulous version of Wallflower (Roll with Me, Henry), and Tibor Gyapjas on trumpet also fantastically co-narrates the show with Bull as a truly dynamic master(s) of ceremonies double act.

There are too many excellent renditions to recount here, but I’m gonna give it the ol’ college try. Bull and the band perform sultry, soulful versions of I Just Want to Make Love to You, Spoonful, and Tell Mama, while Something’s Got a Hold On Me, Tough Lover and In the Basement made me want to get up and jive. And yet they approach the more sorrowful, soulful ballads with the same skill and passion, ascending to the heart-breaking heights of Sugar on the Floor, Would it Make Any Difference to You and Fool That I Am. And, if that wasn’t enough, the show closes with an emotionally epic encore performance of the Eagles’ Take it to the Limit, a song which Etta felt best described her tumultuous life.

At Last: The Etta James Story treats its eponymous icon’s songs and life story with respect, care and love – and I can only hope they return to the UK for a third time next year. Meanwhile, the show is touring around the UK through October, and if you can make it to one of these performances – whether you’re an Etta obsessive or an Etta amateur – I promise you won’t regr-etta it.

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