Blues at the Crossroads is a good idea. Take one cherished singer from the 1960s, pair her with one unknown newcomer and another veteran who’s very good but little known and get a terrific band to back them up.
But something happened at the Crossroads on Monday at the Dakota Jazz Club. Someone forgot to think about momentum in this four-act revue.
Newcomer Alecia Chakour took a tune or two to warm up but killed it on an Etta James medley, especially “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Then she exited.
Next the show shifted the spotlight to guitarist Eric Krasnow, known for his work with Soulive. He’s an accomplished player and his soulful instrumental work was a nice interlude.
Irma Thomas, the soul queen of New Orleans, was the perfect person to entertain on the eve of Fat Tuesday. And, at 74, she was in pretty good voice – not overly loud but true and soulful. She had lots of personality, lots of New Orleans and Mardi Gras flavors, and lots of top-notch vintage soul songs.
She offered her first single from 1960, the hard-charging blues "(You Can Have My Husband but) Don't Mess with My Man," did some pleading on her biggest hit “Wish Someone Would Care” and dusted off the sad ballad “Ruler of My Heart” (which Otis Redding reworked as “Pain in My Heart”).To pick up the pace, Thomas performed the New Orleans classic “Iko Iko,” but not “It’s Raining,” one of her classic ballads.
Next up was Lee Fields, who may have more energy and pizazz than Thomas but he’s hardly a household name even if you live in an R&B-loving household. Probably best known for providing some of the singing voice of James Brown in last year’s biopic “Get On Up,” Fields is a good showman but his vocals were inconsistent at Monday’s late show.
He set the right tone with “She’s Not Just Another Woman” but misstepped on the Spinners’ “It’s a Shame,” which sounded pitchy. He rebounded with a knockout version of Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s Man’s World,” which included a little talkin’ blues detour about a household breakup that led to him rework the lyrics to “It’s a Shared World.” Fun and funny -- and deeply soulful.
He couldn’t go wrong with the closing “Signed Sealed Delivered,” which he delivered with some James Brown-like dancing at the end.
I’ve seen Fields do his own show, and it was much more convincing than this lounge act that was part of Blues at the Crossroads. And, frankly, given Thomas’ stature, she should be closing the show, not Fields.
For the encore of the 85-minute performance, you’d expect some up-tempo tune featuring all three singers, guitarist Krasnow and that most excellent backup band, the Dynamites. Well, all three singers were onstage as Thomas offered one of her best known numbers, “Time Is on My Side” (which was made more famous by the Rolling Stones). But it was a medium to slow song, with Fields and Chakour on backup vocals, making the arrangement feel overcooked.
It would have made more sense from an entertainment standpoint to close with “Iko Iko,” a festive tune that would have put everyone at the northern end of the Mississippi River in the mood for Fat Tuesday.