MiloMc Reviews

From the archives: Odetta & James Blood Ulmer, Edinburgh Queens Hall

“The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta.” Bob Dylan

On 2nd Dec 2008 Odetta, one of the great vocalists and a dedicated civil rights campaigner, died of heart disease. This is a review I wrote of her gig with James Blood Ulmer at Edinburgh on April 29th 2006 which was published in issue 22 of Is This Music? Magazine.

Before Odetta appears we are treated to a raggedy performance by James Blood Ulmer, a true old testament bluesman with a uniquely off-kilter electric guitar style. His physical presence is as impressive as his musicianship, but as he growls his lyrics into the mic, some of his message is lost. This isn’t the case though when he sings ‘Katrina’, named after the hurricane which almost destroyed New Orleans. The song’s message is that it was the US government’s failure to raise the levees that was to blame for the disaster, not to mention their less than speedy response. The song makes the blues relevant – condensing hundreds of hours of news footage into one brutal, angry truth.

So frail she has to be helped up the few steps to the stage, 75 year-old Odetta’s spirit shows no such signs of faltering. She begins by reading from a passage encouraging us all to live up to our full potential, then instructs us to sing along to her first song with that in mind. It would be saccharine in anyone else’s hands but she gives it gravitas. 

“This is my first time in Scotland, and I’ve been spoiled rotten” she tells us, with a wide, beautiful grin and then lets rip her powerful voice, probably the most amazing I’ve ever heard in the flesh, at times as fierce as a wronged God, at times as gentle and joyful as a child’s- but always utterly mesmerising.

Accompanied by a pianist from New York on grand piano, she sings a selection of carefully chosen pieces, a few from Leadbelly such as Poor Man’s Blues and TB Blues and one of his children’s songs. She revitalises Labi Siffre’s ‘Something Inside So Strong’ discarding it’s usual cliched arrangement to focus on its central message of survival and protest. 

It’s her encore which brings the audience to their feet though, a blistering ‘House of the Rising Sun’ which merges into an unaccompanied version of Scottish folk ballad ‘When I Was a Young Girl’, both of which she informs us, deal with prostitution. It’s a performance which almost rivals Billie Holiday’s famous rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’ for menace, tragedy, and power. – Battle Hymn of The Republic – Rising Sun/When I Was a Young Girl (live at hardly strictly bluegrass)

mp3s via Anyone’s Guess

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