Etta James @ PrideFest
June 14, 2009
It was a perfect summer night last Sunday as the enthusiastic crowd at PrideFest eagerly anticipated the Fest's final headlining act, legendary blues singer/songwriter Etta James. At 71, James has seen a recent resurgence with the movie Cadillac Records and the film's revival of her 1960 hit "At Last," which was sung at President Obama's inauguration (never mind the Beyonce flap).
So imagine the shock and disappointment when, after a 10-minute musical introduction by her excellent eight-piece Roots Band, the R&B songstress performed just six songs over 35 minutes-and that includes the encore, if you can call it that. "At Last" was performed after James had partially exited the stage on a motorized scooter before coming back to sing her biggest career hit.
Sitting the entire time in a swivel chair, James appeared to be pushing her limits even during such a short set. Her contralto vocals have changed over the years, deepening with a biting edge that still worked for her highly suggestive show opener, "I Just Want to Make Love to You"-despite countless variations, she still made the Willie Dixon classic all her own.And James knew how to work the crowd with her sexual taunts and teases, as with "I Want to Ta Ta You, Baby."
"I love to do his songs because they're really so sexy," she said of the Johnny Guitar Watson composition, adding slyly, "Do you know what 'Ta Ta' is?" to the crowd's roaring recognition.
The crowd actually helped to carry the singer on the audience participation of the Janis Joplin hit "Piece of My Heart," singing the choruses each and every time (and a fine job they did).
James appeared most enthusiastic singing a favorite tune, "Sugar on the Floor," a piece of pop confection by Elton John collaborator Kiki Dee. James showcased her uncanny ability to take a song and rework it with a plaintive blues wail, vulnerable yet with an underlying strength to go on.
But then, just as the night and the stage were heating up, it was over all too quickly.