Etta James takes the stage in a modest fashion, hobbling across it on her surgically replaced knee. But once she makes it to the mikestand and leans into a gritty “Come to Mama,” any vestige of uncertainty is banished; she is in command. With a husky voice that’s both brassy and vulnerable, combining jazzy phrasing with a gospel singer’s sense of drama, James at 65 is still a formidable presence.
At the House of Blues on Saturday night, James led her Roots Band in a set that was closer to cabaret than the bluesy show she played last year at the same venue. Hits, including a passionate “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “At Last” (the latter dedicated to singer Norah Jones, who was in attendance), alternate with forgotten chestnuts such as the torchy “A Lover Is Forever” and the crowd-pleasing sensuality of “Sugar on the Floor,” plus medleys of songs by Jimmy Reed, Otis Redding and Al Green, all interspersed with bawdy stories and teasing banter with the enthusiastic aud, who cheered every time she pulled herself out of the chair and shook her hips.
The one thing missing from the nearly two-hour set was any mention of her fine new album, “Let’s Roll,” due next month from Private Music. But whether she performs new material or not, there’s no denying that James is an American treasure, and a welcome presence whatever she sings.
James plays B.B. King’s Blues Club in New York May 23-25 and returns to Los Angeles July 9 for a date at the Hollywood Bowl.