RECORDINGS

Etta James
Live From San Francisco
(On the Spot)

Yes, that city by the bay that recently played host to Van Morrison's recorded live set has also captured R&B legend Etta James in the raw. This just-released 1981 set at the legendary Boarding House marks James' return to live performing after being sidelined by that crazy little thing called disco. While her voice is a lot lower and gruffer than it was when she scored her biggest hit, "Tell Mama," in 1968, it's no less of an effective tool for conveying seduction and suffering. "Mama," which Janis Joplin scored a hit with not long after, is included on this set, as well as Etta's spellbinding "I'd Rather Go Blind." The song essays the anguish at seeing your former lover with your best friend and your own falling tears--all reflected in the same busy glass of Scotch.

Since yuppies turned blues into the live music of choice, some of these selections, like Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do," suffer from overexposure. Etta manages to rescue this one by imitating peerless harmonica playing with her voice. She turns the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit" into a gospel call and response, and uncovers, of all things, a killer Kiki Dee composition titled "Sugar on the Floor." Live From San Francisco may not be as essential as Chess' recent compilation of her greatest recordings, but it sure makes you want to go and see her live now.

Blak Czer
Tales From Da Blak Side
(Relativity)

Take a pinch of Onyx, a drop of K-Solo and a smidgen of Snoop Doggy Dogg. Then find a rapper from Pittsburgh (Blak Czer) and a producer from L.A. (D.J. Battlecat). Add some funky beats and lyrics, combine them in a studio, press on aluminum and there you have it: Tales From Da Blak Side.

Blak Czer quickly demonstrates his polished lyrical skills, but ultimately comes up lacking in the originality department. Case in point: "Think I'm Going Crazy" is reminiscent of Onyx's rough and rugged, grimy sound; Czer is essentially imitating Onyx vocalist Freddo. You'll also find tastes of Domino, among other artists, as you listen to Czer's debut.

If you can somehow overlook the problem with originality, there is some good stuff to look for. You won't want to miss "Stick Up," with surprise guest, old-schooler Dana Dane making a long-awaited appearance. Another head nodder is "The Hood"; here Blak Czer rips lyrics over a hard, crisp beat and a bass line that's caressed by a smooth organ. The track titled "Versatile With Style" is no lie; Czer has mastered just about all there is to copy.

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