Etta James is for many the epitome of the ballsy, brassy R & B mama. Her best-known hits have been characterized by torrid sexual longing pumped into overdrive by protofeminist assertiveness--and the personal dues she's paid for her outlaw lifestyle have become legendary. But behind the legend is a versatile and sophisticated stylist who's dabbled in virtually every genre, from blues and R & B in its various incarnations to hard rock, blues rock, pop, funk, even country-western. James was chided by jazz critics early in her career for the shrillness of her vocals and the sexual explicitness of her stage show; however, recent recordings (Mystery Lady, Time After Time) have placed her in straightforward jazz contexts with elegant results. The upper limits of her vocal range may have fallen by a few notes over the years, but on these outings she delivers a sweet vibrato, a dusky sense of melancholy, and thrilling ascents into ecstatic celebration, all with a tasteful restraint her detractors probably never believed she had in her. Her live performances are sometimes marred by ham-fisted rock-oriented backup bands, but with James it's either her own terms or no terms at all: she won't be dictated to or constrained, and even her most infuriating excesses must be accepted as indispensable components of her majestic gift. Thursday, April 24, 9:30 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn, Chicago; 312-527-2583. --David Whiteis
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Etta James by James R. Minchin III.