• By: Keith Whittier

Etheridge Stax Up the Soul at Bluesfest

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Photos by Andre Gagne

Some musicians go through multiple wardrobe changes over the course of a show. Melissa Etheridge goes through an arsenal of guitars. That and a whole lot of soul.

“I’m going to lift you up, going to inspire you, going to make you feel good. We need lots of that,” the Grammy-winning breast cancer survivor told an RBC Bluesfest ready for it all. It would be her first return to Ottawa since 2011 and fans learned early on that this show was going to be an entirely different offering then the last.  

While the veteran rocker would dive into her own back pages, it was the music she grew up on that made up a show mostly of covers that dug deep into the archives of Stax Records. Named the year she was born, Stax was instrumental in creating the Southern soul sound Etheridge would spread across LeBreton Flats last night as a sunset painted the sky above.

One of the label’s biggest stars, Otis Redding, adorned Etheridge’s shirt as she set the pace for her 90-minute set with Sam & Dave’s #1 with a bullet 1966 Stax hit “Hold On, I’m Comin’”.  Coming, no? The guitar solo was all the crowd needed to know that she was there and, like the city's beloved Senators, she was all in.

When you are putting that kind of power at the forefront of some legendary recordings to live up to, you’re going to need something strong backing you. Along with what she called her “forever players”, Etheridge found what she needed byway of the Montreal Jazz Festival. Her 9-piece, mostly Canadian band, effortlessly transitioned from soul to rock and back again with a juicy horn section adding the exclamation point.

“Since this is a blues festival, I would be remiss if I didn’t do some blues,” Etheridge said to the audible sound of hardcore blues fans fainting somewhere near the back because, oh yes, she’d grace the night time festival audience with a little bit of the festival namesake.

Though I may be wrong, but what Etheridge called the “good stuff”  hasn’t been seen on one the festival’s main stages this late in the evening since B.B. King put the blues back into Bluesfest in 2013. Etheridge would play a pair of kings, however, first drawing the Memphis Blues stylings of Albert King for the classic “Born Under a Bad Sign” before showing her full hand with a cover of B.B.’s “Rock Me Baby”.

“What a pleasure to be at your famous Bluesfest tonight,” Etheridge said before going on to praise the example Canadians are setting in a rocky political climate elsewhere.

“I want you to send lots of good vibes to America. Please! Just think the best thoughts of us because we will find our way. We have to make it work. I know we all have our issues and problems but you guys are a shining example, especially here in Ottawa. Keep it up. You are leading the whole world.”

With that out of the way, Etheridge launched into cuts more recognizable to her long-time fans moving from guitar to guitar for the trio of “Come to My Window”, “Bring Me Some Water” and a stunning solo drenched extended version of  “I’m The Only One".

She’d even trade her six-string in for a selfie stick telling the crowd to say hello to Twitter before being handed her black as the ace of spades electric. Business was about to pick up!

“Do you want to rock?”

That was a big affirmative and Etheridge hit us with a cover of “Piece of My Heart” so damn close to the original you could almost see Janis wailing behind that mic stand. Edging over her allotted set time, she had one more piece to share, a scorching 15-minute “Like the Way I Do” that, if it had one, would have eaten up the Bluesfest guitar solo quota.

Sorry Madeline Merlo, you’re just going to have to wait because when you’re Melissa Etheridge with a guitar in hand you get off the stage whenever the hell you want.

Hold On, I’m Comin’ (Sam &Dave cover)
Chrome Plated Heart
Superstition (Stevie Wonder cover)
Any Other Way (William Bell cover)
I Want to Come Over
Respect Yourself (The Staple Singers cover)
Born Under a Bad Sign (Albert King cover)
Come to My Window
Bring Me Some Water
Am I The Only One
Rock Me Baby (B.B. King cover)
Am I The Only One (reprise)
Piece of my Heart (Janis Joplin cover)
Like the Way I Do