Etta James is for many the epitome of the ballsy, brassy R & B mama. Her best-known hits have been characterized by torrid sexual longing pumped into overdrive by protofeminist assertiveness–and the personal dues she’s paid for her outlaw lifestyle have become legendary. But behind the legend is a versatile and sophisticated stylist who’s dabbled in virtually every genre, from blues and R & B in its various incarnations to hard rock, blues rock, pop, funk, even country-western. James was chided by jazz critics early in her career for the shrillness of her vocals and the sexual explicitness of her stage show; however, recent recordings (Mystery Lady, Time After Time) have placed her in straightforward jazz contexts with elegant results. The upper limits of her vocal range may have fallen by a few notes over the years, but on these outings she delivers a sweet vibrato, a dusky sense of melancholy, and thrilling ascents into ecstatic celebration, all with a tasteful restraint her detractors probably never believed she had in her. Her live performances are sometimes marred by ham-fisted rock-oriented backup bands, but with James it’s either her own terms or no terms at all: she won’t be dictated to or constrained, and even her most infuriating excesses must be accepted as indispensable components of her majestic gift. Thursday, April 24, 9:30 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn, Chicago; 312-527-2583. –David Whiteis
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Etta James by James R. Minchin III.