Etta James

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Phases & Stages
Photo By Mary Sledd

Etta James

Hogg Auditorium, July 13

To quote one of Etta James' many signature tunes: At last! After two previous cancellations due to illness, the R&B queen took the stage Wednesday at Hogg Auditorium to a roar from the expectant crowd that nearly blew the roof off the place. Shamefully, it wasn't a full house, but it didn't matter. James was back in Austin after three decades. Years of health problems have taken their toll on the 67-year-old diva, yet she was breathtaking when she stepped onstage in a glittery aquamarine shirt over dark slacks. Two hundred pounds lighter, James still struggled across stage to her specially made chair (a padded, one-armed swivel chair with "Etta" emblazoned on the seat), but her voice – Lord have mercy – was as strong and limber as ever. Sultry, plaintive, demanding, needy, angry, and sweet, James offered a 75-minute main set that pleased the adoring audience to no end. She was in a playful mood, offering a flirty, some might say frivolous rendition of her early hit "I'd Rather Go Blind." Instead of tapping into the deep pain of the tune, James mugged with nasty girl antics that would make a streetwalker blush. "You don't like me?" she cooed to an apparently disapproving woman in the front row. "Well, I know your husband does!" James got down to business with "At Last." Her bell-like voice hushed the dreamy-eyed audience as couples spontaneously slow danced in the aisles. She followed this with the moving "A Lover Is Forever." A medley of Otis Redding tunes, a down 'n' dirty take on Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "I Want to Ta-Ta You Baby," and Kiki Dee's "Sugar on the Floor" were some of the evening's highlights. Backing by a tight ninepiece band, including Bobby Murray on electric guitar, Dave Matthews on keyboards, and James' sons Donto on drums and Sametto on bass made the whole evening sweeter. The biggest thrill, of course, was seeing James herself. It's a rare opportunity to say you were in the presence of a "living legend" – as Terry Lickona introduced the singer at an Austin City Limits taping the previous night – and James brought it all and then some, to deliver a legendary performance.

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