There were times last night when Blues Alley could have done without its stage lights. Esther Phillips' performance was that hot.
Microphone in hand, Phillips descended the stairs of the club while chewing off the words to an unrequited-love song in the sexiest of growls. Once downstairs, she discovered there wasn't an empty seat in the house, and more than a few people standing and applauding her entrance. She didn't disappoint them.
Despite her flirtation with disco in recent years, Phillips remains a blues singer through and through. Her brightest moments came when she reshaped Billie Holiday's "Lover Man" to accommodate her own bittersweet, eccentric phrasing. Or when declaiming Joe Turner's "Cherry Red" -- vocally at first, and then on piano, where she pumped away in a manner recalling the late boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson.
Unfortunately, some of her recent material doesn't do her or her audience justice, but she invariably overcame the limitations these songs imposed on some of her recordings. And her quartet, led by George Spencer on electric keyboards, supported her ably throughout. She's truly a singer who has to be seen to be appreciated.
Esther Phillips remains at Blues Alley through Sunday.