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Etta James & the Roots Band
House of Blues
April 30, 2009
By Linda Cain
Photos: Jennifer Wheeler
Back in her youth, Etta James was known as hellacious wildcat. Nowadays, the 71-year-old diva has mellowed into a feisty cougar, who’d rather purr than scratch your eyes out. Like finely aged whiskey, her voice has become smoother and richer; full of color and nuance.
Although she walked with a limp and performed her hour-long show sitting down, the three-time Grammy winner let the crowd know that she’s still one hot, sexy mama. The blonde-wigged blues woman opened with a funky, low-down version of “Come to Mama.” Bumping and grinding to the thumping bass in her swivel chair, while stroking her inner thighs and clutching her breasts, the sensuous senior authoritatively sang “if you need a satisfier… come to mama.”
After that, the former Chicagoan held the audience in the palm of her bejeweled hand. The packed house cheered the opening notes of “I’d Rather Go Blind” as Etta performed a mischievous version of the anguished torch song. “I was just thinking, about your sweet kiss and your…uhhh” she sang, dropping the line “and your warm embrace,” while leaving the rest to innuendo. “You know what I’m talking about girls,” Etta teased.
The innuendo continued for a song by her late mentor Johnny “Guitar” Watson. “I Wanna Tie Tie You, Baby” she growled in her lusty feline voice. Feeling frisky, Etta bounced in her chair and played a bit of air guitar to accompany Bobby Murray’s solo.
Etta’s eight-piece band (two guitars, three horns, keyboards, bass, drums) mostly left the stage for the ballad “A Lover Is Forever.” Accompanied by only her two guitarists for this gorgeous Latin-styled love song, Etta’s voice took center stage, with the audience hanging on each word. With no band to drown out the singer’s more subtle vocal stylings, Etta’s jazzy inflections, scatting and cooing became clearly audible to the delight of all.
Her vocal adventures continued with an updated version of “Damn Your Eyes,” on which the trumpet player blew a jazzy solo. Etta answered, wordlessly scatting in response, as her voice took on the exotic sounds of a Middle Eastern chant. Exhilarated, the singer rose to her feet for the song’s finale.
“Do you remember Janis Joplin?” asked Etta, who lived a fast-lane lifestyle (before rehab) similar to the late blues-rock belter. The Roots Band kicked off a dynamic version of “Piece of My Heart,” with gospel-inspired B-3 organ and a punchy horn section. “Didn’t I make you feeeel, like youuuu were the only man” Etta cried. She invited the audience to sing along on the chorus, “take another little piece of my heart, now baby.” The crowd obliged, singing with gusto, as the house lights went up. Etta now had her own choir to direct. “You know you’ve got it, if it makes you feel good,” she and the choir sang in unison.
For her final number, Etta announced, “this is one of my favorite songs.” A cheer rose up through the adoring fans. “Someone else sang this song. But that’s all I’m gonna say about that,” she stated, in a reference to Beyonce and her White House inaugural performance. “But I’m going to sing it now.” The audience became reverent as Etta, one of the most influential female singers of all time, performed “At Last” with beauty and elegance. “Thank you,” she concluded to the cheering crowd, and exited stage right.
Soon she returned, from stage left, to don a pair of shades and deliver a Chicago-style encore. “You got me runnin’, you got me hidin’..” Etta belted the old Jimmy Reed song, “Baby, What You Want Me To Do,” backed by Chicago’s own Howard Levy on blues harp. (Levy also played sax in the band’s horn section). Levy knelt beside Etta to blow her some blue notes. She answered in scat language, her voice mimicking Levy’s harmonica. Etta wrapped up the night with some ad libbed lyrics and started to leave the stage. She returned to the mic, however, for one last “thank you,” to the appreciative fans, who had stood before the H.O.B. stage for up to three hours prior to Etta’s 60-minute set.
Appropriately, the evening began and ended with Chicago blues. Local band Rob Stone and the C-Notes opened the show with an enthusiastic set of blues standards, plus originals. Blues harp player/singer/ songwriter Stone was backed by all-star blues players including guitarist Mark Wydra, sax man Rodney Brown and piano pounder Ariyo. Each band member, including the drummer and bass player, turned in excellent, bluesified solos. Playing traditional blues from Chicago’s “golden era,” the band covered the masters -- Jimmy Rogers, Magic Sam, Little Walter, Muddy Waters -- proving that their spirit lives on in Sweet Home Chicago, thanks to these talented blues cats. Stone’s upbeat original tunes, which ranged from jump blues to boogie woogie, were enthusiastically received by the audience. Rob Stone & the C-Notes are longtime Chicago favorites who play at H.O.B. and blues clubs all over the city.
Copyright: 2009, Chicago Blues Guide