Never one for a shy approach to the blues, Etta James has been tamed, though hardly tempered, by health problems that forced her to stay seated throughout her 90-minute show. She’s still playing the role of tortured seductress, albeit less over the top than years past, and as much as she focuses on familiar material, she still manages to bring something fresh to almost every performance.
Tuesday was a particularly good night for James, her spirits reaching a point of giddiness that ran counter to the pain and longing that dominates almost all her songs. With a new album to support, “Life, Love & the Blues” (Private Music), the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer smoothly moved through her best-known numbers — “I’d Rather Be a Blind Girl,” “Come to Momma,” “Damn Your Eyes” — and tossed in a trio from the new disc: “Hoochie Coochie Gal,” “Born Under a Bad Sign” and the title track.
It’s the formula she has been using for almost two decades now and, as such, can get tired; but her band is all aces, providing dramatic shadings and a soulful backdrop that removes funky grittiness and replaces it with a shimmer.
There are moments, however, when the tightness can be too much — and at one point, you’d have sworn the arrangement was lifted from a Steely Dan disc — but generally the arrangements posit James as a solid purveyor of a soul-blues blend. (Move over, Little Milton).
James provided an astounding twist on her art with an improvised medley of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” and “Take Me to the River” and Rodgers & Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” Here, she reached from the grounded earthiness of Green’s spiritual soul to the jazz and whimsy of “Valentine,” to which trumpeter Tom Poole added some tasty Miles Davis-inspired stylings.
But the Miles that Poole and the band were working came from his electric ’60s period, when keyboards and guitars darted at each other; with James scatting and bouncing among the three songs, her performance took on an added depth that shows that at 60, she’s still making the blues world take notice.