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POP MUSIC REVIEW : A Show of Vindication by Etta James

March 24, 1995|RICHARD CROMELIN

Instead of emphasizing the wronged-woman songs that have largely defined her persona through a 40-year career, Etta James put on a show of vindication on Wednesday at the House of Blues, assembling a set that found her turning the tables and calling the shots.

"Your real good thing is about to come to an end," she warned, her still-powerful voice backing up the threat with an ominous edge. Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You" provided a note of sexual aggression to counterbalance the opening "How Strong Is a Woman," a celebration of subservience that she supplemented with vulgar bump-and-grind moves.

She did explore other themes and musical areas, but the tone of triumph was appropriate on a night when James--a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member who's considered one of the pillars of rhythm & blues--was presented with her first Grammy, a jazz award for last year's album of Billie Holiday songs.

That ceremony tripped up the show coming out of the starting gate, but James, 57, restored the momentum quickly enough. Backed by her capable if unexceptional Roots Band, she ranged into jazzy intimacy and pop material (the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit" as a soul ballad). Her force of personality and enduring vocal strength made everything indisputably her own.

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