“Y’all know where Beyonce is?” demanded Etta James at the Birchmere Saturday night. The septugenarian 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. 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 was comprised of a mere eight songs.
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 there’s no mandatory retirement age from getting it on. The woman-scorned balled “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.”
Etta James and The Roots Band at the Birchmere, Saturday, May 16, 2009
(Two instrumental numbers by The Roots band, sans Etta)
01 Come to Mama 02 I'd Rather Go Blind 03 I Wanna Ta-Ta You, Baby 04 A Lover Is Forever 05 Damn Your Eyes 06 Take a Piece of My Heart 07 Sugar on the Floor 08 At Last