With a string of classics under the belt, Melissa Etheridge is not an artist who needs to rely on the songwriter chops of others unless she want to pay homage to some of the greats, and that’s exactly what she does on her supremely entertaining ode to the birthplace of rock and roll, “Memphis Rock and Soul.”
Perhaps, given the obvious debt that Etheridge owes to the blues and the early days of R&B and rock that blasted out of Memphis and eventually took over the country, it was a logical step for Etheridge to pause her own prolific stream of songwriting and pay homage to those who made her career possible. Anybody who has been to Memphis, basked in the glorious histories of the Sun and Stax Studios, or Graceland, or listened to the endless stream of live music that can still be heard on on Beale Street, understands the importance of the city’s history in the formation of rock and roll.
Memphis is the great melting pot of soul, gospel, blues, jazz, rockabilly, country and everything else under the sun that merged to form what we know is rock and roll, and it was the pioneering local record companies and DJs who helped spread this wild new sound across the airwaves to the masses.
Etheridge runs through a dozen energetic classics, sounding fresh and revitalized. Her voice has never sounded better as she tackles the standard “Memphis Train,” paying homage not only to the city in the bluesy classic but also to the well-worn tradition of “train” songs which are an inexorable part of the fabric of early rock and roll. Her stirring cover of “Respect Yourself” answers the question once and for all — do some of these songs, many of which have been recorded dozens of times, really need yet another rendition? The answer, in the hands of Melissa Etheridge, is an emphatic yes. She’s clearly having a blast with this album, and her infectious energy comes through in every note.
Etheridge delivers a raucous, wonderfully raspy vocal on the the old R&B chestnut “Hold On, I’m Coming,” one of the album’s undeniable highlights. She also takes on the slow waltz ballad “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” and offers a heartfelt performance that is truly breathtaking. She may not have written these great songs, but unlike some artists with the temerity to tackle the classics, Etheridge has the vocal chops and the musical knowledge to pull them off with genuine authenticity and verve.
The blues favorite “Rock Me Baby” is another standout, with some scorching lead guitar and a vocal that might not quite match Tina Turner’s seminal version, but Etheridge certainly does herself proud.
Billy Idol fans may recognize “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” an old R&B ballad that he reworked into the high-energy ‘80s hit “To Be A Lover.” Etheridge reclaims the original and gives yet another dynamite performance of a truly beautiful ballad.
The album ends with the gospel-tinged “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” and it’s a perfect summation of everything that came before. Like the melting pot that was Memphis itself, Etheridge touches upon all the different styles that led to the genre to which she’s devoted her career: rock and roll. She does it with reverence and respect for the material, delivering one great vocal after another and her song choices are diverse and shrewd. It’s a fantastic showcase for Etheridge, a nostalgic but fresh celebration of the music that launched a thousand radio hits.
Many cover albums, especially genre exercises like this one, can be painful, but Etheridge pulls it off beautifully. Put it on, close your eyes, and let yourself drift back to another time when it was still taboo for black artists to be on the radio and interracial couples were strictly taboo and rock and roll was in its formative stages. There is great music to be mined from this era, and Etheridge does a marvelous job holding the shovel.