Etta James: Live Last Night

Live Last Night

Sasha Fierce, keep your distance.

"Y'all know where Beyoncé is?" Etta James demanded on Saturday night at the Birchmere. The septuagenarian sexpot is still cranky that the 27-year-old one-namer who portrayed her in the film "Cadillac Records" got to sing "At Last" for the president and the first lady back in January.

The Artist Formerly Known as Jamesetta Hawkins didn't write the song and wasn't the first to record it, but she defined it. As the title track of her debut LP for Chess Records in 1961, it remains her most iconic tune. So it made a thrilling-if-predictable climax to James's thrilling-if-too-brief 50-minute cabaret -- one that examined love and lust from a surprising variety of thematic and musical angles, given that it comprised a mere eight songs.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

Performing with the eight-piece Roots Band, James remained seated throughout the set but otherwise betrayed no physical strain. Her voice has lost nothing in brio over the decades, despite having dropped in pitch.

Actually, that description might extend beyond her, um, pipes: Grinding and pawing herself on the opener "Come to Mama," she made clear that there's no mandatory retirement age for getting it on.

The woman-scorned ballad "I'd Rather Go Blind" doubled down on the innuendo. "I was sitting there thinkin' 'bout your sweet kisses," she purred. "And your ..." -- she let the line hang for a moment before adding: "I know you know what I'm talkin' about."

James dismissed most of her band for the smoldering "A Lover Is Forever," allowing only the two guitarists to accompany a towering vocal performance that evinced a pain -- and gravitas -- necessarily lacking from the set's randier numbers.

"Damn Your Eyes" found the band shifting time signatures to crossbreed Latin percussion with Chicago blues while James interpolated a bit of "BĂ©same Mucho." She displayed some un-diva-like behavior on Janis Joplin's "Take a Piece of My Heart" by inviting the audience to sing along, then she returned to sultry form for Kiki Dee's "Sugar on the Floor."

Early on, she joked that her son had warned her backstage, "Ma, they got a lot of young kids here!"

"What are you trying to tell me?" she replied. "I'm gonna do what I do."

Lucky us.

-- CHRIS KLIMEK

By J. Freedom du Lac |  May 17, 2009; 8:52 PM ET Live Last Night
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