Canadian singer-songwriter Elise LeGrow lit up the back streets of the Bastille in Paris on Monday, bringing the sound of the iconic Chess Records to the packed Café de la Danse.
As record labels go, they don’t come much bigger than Chicago’s Chess Records: home to the likes of Etta James, Chuck Berry, Bo Didley and Muddy Waters, their role in the development of blues, RnB, soul and jazz artists gives them a deserved reputation as one of the most defining and iconic record labels in history.
Covering songs from its formidable back catalogue would be a daunting prospect for even the most experienced of artists. Re-imagining and re-interpreting them into your own, entirely new versions is perhaps even more overwhelming. Yet that’s exactly what LeGrow has done on her debut album Playing Chess and for this, her first performance in Paris.
Opening with a re-working of the classic Bo Diddley song “Who Do You Love”, the frenetic tempo of the original is gone, intelligently re-imagined instead into a brooding relationship lament.
Working with Grammy winning heavyweights Betty Wright, Steve Greenberg and Michael Mangini (the team behind Joss Stones’ Soul Sessions) on the album, Le Grow offers respect for the originals but makes them relevant for a modern audience; witnessed in her take on the Johnnie and Joe rarity, “Over the Mountain, Across the Sea”.
Recalling Selah Sue and Alice Russell, LeGrow’s voice is soulful and bluesy but with a raspier rock quality – something perhaps acquired during her time touring in rock bands across her native Canada. Her love of rock may also explain her choice to cover Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” – popularised in Pulp Fiction which was where LeGrow heard the song for the first time.
But her version is staggeringly different to the original: slower and with mournful soul replacing rock n roll, it becomes a delicate, sombre interpretation – something especially poignant in light of Berry’s passing last year. “Every time I sing this song, I feel like I’m singing up,” Le Grow reflected as she paid tribute..
As well as her re-workings, LeGrow also performed original material: ”No Good Woman” and “Biggest Fan.” Combining the 50’s and 60’s sounds she admires in Chess with more alternative undertones, LeGrow marked herself out as a strong songwriter in her own right.
Supported only with minimal percussion and rhythm mirroring her breakout performance on Later with Jools Holland last year, the simple set-up exposes both the strength of her voice and her introspective, confessional song-writing. Her stripped version of the excellent doo-wop ”Sincerely” by the Moonglows and an elegant re-working of Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me” completed an exciting debut for the young Canadian.