Etta James is justifiably proud of her versatility, but her late-90s excursions into pop jazz (Heart of a Woman) and country (Love's Been Rough on Me) were compromised by intrusive production and banal material--even her legendary voice sounded less supple than usual. Last year she roared back with Matriarch of the Blues (Private Music), an aggressive, streetwise set of the music she does best, confirming her exalted place in the pantheon of blues and R & B. On Little Milton's "Walking the Back Streets and Crying" she builds from a smooth croon into a choked rasp full of hurt and righteous outrage; she infuses Latimore's soul-blues standard "Let's Straighten It Out" with a riveting blend of vulnerability and heartbreak-hardened resolve. On the Otis Redding chestnut "Try a Little Tenderness" her gritty, nuanced vocals sound battered but unbroken, and she belts out O.V. Wright's "Don't Let My Baby Ride" like a street preacher ready to call down hellfire on any woman who plays around with her man. Queen Etta hasn't decided to roll over for the purists, though: on Matriarch she also tackles a couple tunes from the rock side of the fence. She sings Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" with sanctified passion and apocalyptic fury, and her rendition of the Stones' "Miss You," equal parts desperate wail and libidinous howl, is the bluesiest I've ever heard. I haven't had a chance to pick up her latest disc, Blue Gardenia, which came out earlier this week, but I doubt she'll be playing much material from it here. It reportedly returns to the intimate, nightclubby pop-jazz setting of Heart of a Woman, with a backing combo led by ace pianist Cedar Walton, but for this show she's bringing her Roots Band, the hard-driving blues-rock outfit she's been touring with for years. James tends to pack the Roots Band with testosterone cases who seem intent on drowning her out--but if her performances on Matriarch are any indication, she's still plenty feisty enough to put her sidemen in their place. Saturday, August 25, 9 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-923-2000 or 312-559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sonny Mediana.