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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Etta James Pumps Intensity Into Tales of the Heart : In her Coach House show, the veteran vocalist displays both power and control as she delivers her trademark songs of love arriving and departing.

March 19, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Go to see Etta James and you get a show about the affairs of the heart.

James knows these matters intimately, and Thursday at the Coach House, she sang songs about love arriving, love leaving--and even sometimes love hanging around--delivering her tunes with feeling and emotion.

Employing her potent incantatory alto, James sent her tales across the room with such intensity and honesty that even those who had forgotten what love was all about might have been reminded.

James, 56, who has enjoyed a four-decade career in music, is refreshingly controlled.

At the Coach House, she proved that her instrument--called "one of the two or three deepest, most profound voices in rhythm and blues" by Russell Gersten in the "New Rolling Stone Record Guide"--remains plenty powerful, and her gritty shouts carry sufficient strength to massage their way up your spine.

But she never resorted to the kind of over-the-top histrionics once central to her shows; instead, she consistently used soft, full tones to deliver her message.

This is not to say that Etta James has completely let go of what she calls her 'blues sex queen" image. Rather, it's that she now uses body language to make humorous reference to the sexual aspects in some of her songs, and she gets a lot of mileage out of her bumps and grinds.

For instance, to begin a hissingly slow take of Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On," she meandered over to the stool she had been sitting on, bent toward stage left and slowly rolled her derriere--she was wearing a black satin lounge robe over black stretch pants--back and forth. The crowd howled with laughter.

At a couple of other junctures, she faced her fans, leaned over, opened her robe-coat and squeezed her ample breasts together. She got what she wanted: catcalls, guffaws and smiles.

*

Mostly, though, James simply sat on her stool and sang. Backed by a seven-piece band that gave her a beat as big as boxcar, James offered a relaxed tour through her hits, including "At Last," "I'd Rather Go Blind" and "Come to Mama."

Regrettably, she failed to sing even one tune from her new "Mystery Lady" album, which finds her deftly investigating tunes recorded by Billie Holiday.

"At Last," which James introduced in 1961, offered a perfect example of her skillful use of dynamic sonic colors. She began the emotional song softly; at the third line--"My lonely days are over"--she dropped her voice to an even quieter, deeper level. Soon, though, she was building to the first of several rousing peaks.

With the phrase "I've found a thrill to press my cheek to," she dragged the "I've" out, repeating it three times, as if she were shaking out a rug in the back yard. She closed with the words "and you are mine at last," dropping down for the first four words, attacking the "at" with full volume, then stating the final "last" with simple directness.

Also on the tender side was "A Love Is Forever." Her accompaniment was provided solely by guitarists Josh Sklair and Bobby Murry , and the resulting quietude surrounded her as she sang with a misty-voiced intimacy. As she worked toward the song's climax, she sang higher-range tones that were quite strong but not piercing.

A good, bubbling beat underpinned several tunes, among them Newman's "Hat," which was outfitted with a Stevie Wonder-esque horn part played by trombonist Kraig Kilby and trumpeter Ronnie Buttacavoli.

*

Both "I Just Want to Make Love to You" and "Baby, What You Want Me to Do?"--two blues standards--were driven by rough-and-tumble shuffle grooves that led to foot-tapping and head-bobbing from the crowd.

James' son Donto, Richard Cousins and Dave Mathews fleshed out the band on drums, bass and organ respectively, giving James a solid ballast on which to build her renditions.

If there was a drawback to the performance--besides the missing Billie Holiday numbers --it was that James extended some of her tunes, going into long pointless rhythmic vamps and indulging in silly call-and-responses with the crowd. In the same space, another telling tune could have been offered.

Guitarist-singer Coco Montoya's blues band opened the show, and although Montoya can sing and play, he continually pushed his songs to a high-decibel level that took away most of the pleasure they were intended to impart.

* Etta James plays tonight at 9 at the Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura. $19.50. (805) 648-1888.

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