Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., May 1, 2009
Etta JamesAustin Music Hall, April 24
Etta James doesn't walk well anymore. Singing isn't a problem. After a painful hip sway to her seat front and center, the 71-year-old R&B survivor held court in reading glasses while drinking Cognac for a mercifully brief, if at times still intoxicating, eight-song main set at an intimately configured Austin Music Hall. Backed by a sevenpiece "Roots Band" in no danger of being mistaken for Philly's hip-hop combine (except possibly in advertisements), James played the cougar, opening with Harold Arlen's "Come to Mama" by sucking her thumb ("Let me be your pacifier") as if it were anything but a thumb and writhing in her chair like a lap dance. "A lot different not being at Austin City Limits," lamented the singer, her 2005 taping at the local PBS calling card one of its jewels. "But I love Austin." In the succeeding "I'd Rather Go Blind," glass in hand, James felt around for Austin's sweet spot, exploring the crevices of a bottomless soul that curled, stretched, and elasticized phrases, verses, and wordless vocals. Words were superfluous during "I Want to Ta-Ta You Baby," as James sustained her "A"s and arched her best Jennifer Beals at the Flashdance. Harsh acoustics spanked the tune equally. Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" comes with boozy built in, but in the following take on greatest hit "Sugar on the Floor," the grand dame wobbled noticeably on familiar ground. Struggling to her feet, supporting herself on the stool, diaphragm finally loosened, James rallied for a two-song encore, taunting Beyoncé with a perfect reading of signature pledge "At Last" and bringing one of Lou Ann Barton's defining songs back full circle on "Baby, What You Want Me to Do." Etta James might not walk the walk anymore, but the talk still sings.