"I think about Etta James every day," Lauren Mitchell said before belting out a strong, upbeat version of the jazz great.
The first time I saw Mitchell wow a crowd, she played to a packed local blues restaurant. The second time there, she played to a mostly empty house, the same night a new shopping mall opened just a few miles away. The second night, I spoke to the saxophonist sitting in with the band, a polite local dentist. I shook hands with the slim keyboardist. After her high-energy performance, I sat next to Mitchell on the long table between the empty dance floor and the bare bar. With a hardtop briefcase open beside her, like a ready-made desk, Mitchell paid a bill with an old-fashioned check. Once the band packed their equipment into a trailer, they piled into a car and headed off to the next Florida gig; the life of traveling troubadours. On both occasions when I saw Mitchel and company, two pipes dominated the performance: Mitchell's strong voice and the Hammond B3 organ.
George Gershwin, Ethel Smith ("first lady of the Hammond Organ"), Fats Waller, Count Basie, Keith Emerson of ELP, Joey DeFrancesco, ProcolHarum ("A Whiter Shade Of Pale, which topped the UK charts in the summer of 1967"), Hall and Oates, Allman Brothers, Black Crowes, Phish, Zombies, Yes, Rick Wakeman, Uriah Heep, Pink Floyd, Kansas, Genesis, Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley & The Wailers. The Hammond is commonly used with a square, brown wood cabinet, waist high, with a rotating driver inside the top, known as the Leslie, to create the unique whirling sound of a large pipe organ.
And Chorale Rotation
The spinning Leslie horn mimics the complex tones and constantly shifting sources of sound emanating from a large pipe organ. The whirling effect depends on the speed of the rotors, which can be toggled between fast (tremolo) and slow (chorale) using a console or pedal switch, with the most distinctive effect occurring as the speaker rotation speed changes. The second noticeable pipes in the performance and album are Mitchell's.
"I grew up listening to Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and Fatz Waller and Jelly Roll Morton", Ohio native Mitchell said. She listened and performed songs like "Mr. Bojangles," by Jerry Jeff Walker and recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. "My education in soul and blues came from listening to music my parents listened to." Lauren cites Etta James as profoundly influencing her sound. "My grandfather was a guitarist and my grandmother was a singer. They both also played organ. They met when my grandmother auditioned for the bluegrass/country band my grandfather led. My mom also sang in the church choir and there was always music in the home."
Belting Out Blues
With such awe-inspiring performances, I was concerned about Mitchell wearing out her vocal chords. She still takes voice lessons. "I care for my instrument on a daily basis, she said. She does warm-ups, makes sure she rested, does yoga, drinks lots of water and limits intake of certain foods. "It's just maintenance. I also see an ear, nose and throat doctor twice a year for a checkup."
Must artists write their own music to succeed? "Yes and no - Etta James wrote very few of her own songs. Same thing with a lot of the other great "soul singers" of the 60's. It's definitely a good idea to have a few originals, and I am always working on my writing chops (it's not easy). But also, original songs don't always have to be written by the artist who is performing them. Lots of artists have folks that write for them. I also think that if you are writing your own material, it will be more evident to the audience that you're performing something personal and letting them in to your life. That can really make a difference - it's all about honesty & being able to communicate your emotions to the crowd."
The first album is more polished, more studio, but less of the raw Etta Mitchell. It has more of staple pop feel than jazzy blues. The "whooa, whooa" of "Little by Little" is one the most compelling tracks on the album:
1. Come to Mama
Their second album was recorded live at The Bradfordville Blues Club, near Tallahassee, Florida, in February, 2014. It is available by request and at their shows. The band recorded their second album at "a historical place for blues. You can listen to the ghostly aura, feel the presence of decades of unbelievable performances," said sound editor Maurico H. Blanca. He recently bought an UAD Apollo system for his studio, which allows merging classic analog tones with cutting-edge digital features.
Blanca said he decided to mix and finalize the album in-the-box. He was starting to fiddle around with what is possible through the Apollo dedicated plug-ins and routing. "I was truly amazed with its power and flexibility, I had forgotten we were summing digitally for moments." The whole album was mixed and finalized through Logic Pro X. This is a digital audio workstation and MIDI sequencer software application for the Mac OS X platform.
Crack Me Up
I relax to the smooth jazz of acoustic instruments (wrote reviews of Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Michael Franks and Cassandra Wilson for Enjoy the Music.com). Yet when I am out on the town, I love the easy rolling rhythm of smooth blues. So I am grateful that small but artsy Sarasota, Florida, has at least one classy club, with only a five dollar cover. Great way to spend an evening. I am generally not a fan of the hard-grinding, lead guitar axe version of the blues. The Mitchell band doesn't chop the air with hard biting guitar.
I love the saxophone too in any kind of band, which sounds amazingly realistic on my Big Ole Horn loudspeakers. Yet Mitchell's band doesn't showcase the brass on the album either, though she makes a special effort to show off her team in public. Both instruments play back ground to his and her pipes. Mitchell pens three songs on the second album. "It's Raining" is on both. It sounds like an old familiar classic:
It's raining in my heart
"People recognize the Etta influence," says Mitchell. "Our music is definitely more soul that straight blues." Traditional blues and soul tunes fill out the rest of the album. Mitchell's own songs don't stand out as distinctly unique. She has yet to find her own style. She has good rapport with the audience personally, jiving and teasing, showing off her range and strength. Although Mitchell's music is not at all like Joan Aramatrading's folksy pop, her deep tones and strength remind me not only of Armatrading, but also of Cassandra Wilson. Like Wilson, Mitchell also has a full, rich voice, pipes with power, in the loud, brash, belting and thrilling vein of Etta James. On "Voodoo Woman," a few bars are like dark and sultry Patricia Barber.
No Denying Her Pipes Though
Mitchell channels Tina Turner's vocal and stage power. She has tenor type depth, baritone rumble, with raspy rattle. If you like a singer who is "Not Your Sugar Mama," Mitchell's talent will be your style. I fully expect to see her voice and on-stage presence lift her and her band to the next level.