Reality of the Marketplace

Etta James

There are worse things to have than a voice synonymous with romance. Etta James, whose omnipresent wedding classic "At Last" has kicked off an infinite number of marriages with bluesy orchestral chords and perfect, pure vocals—why Christina Aguilera continues to publicly embarrass herself with a subpar rendition remains in question—serves as a high-water mark for every jazz and R&B siren of the past 60-odd years. James' other tracks, among them "A Sunday Kind of Love" and a steamy version of Muddy Waters' "I Just Want to Make Love to You," were indisputably made to be heard on vinyl—the soundtrack to any number and quality of romantic occasions as envisioned by Hollywood, Hallmark and the rest of the American advertising industry. Clichéd positioning aside, how many other singers compel you to put down your pen or pull off the road to listen to every cadence? Not the shrill Aguilera, to be sure.

For all her vocal confidence and richness, James has undergone something of an embarrassing career slide as of late. Unsurprisingly, her late-career work hasn't lived up to the early years (how could it? Can we stop expecting prodigies to be, well, prodigious when they're grandparents?), but instead of retiring, she's opted to plug along with new albums and an egregious sales pitch. James is being heavily marketed as the consummate survivor; her "new slimmed-down look" is the first item mentioned on her official website (James lost around 200 pounds through gastric-bypass surgery) and her (not uncommon) career arc, which spans R&B, jazz, soul, and pop, is supposed to, in itself, denote some kind of spectacular ability. However, James' newest album, All the Way, doesn't do her actual and immense talent any justice. At all. With weird, tepid covers of songs by Simply Red, Prince and R. Kelly (seriously), as well as overly obvious givers such as Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," James seems to be pandering to the lowest and most easily sated common denominator. She was a killer songwriter in the day and doesn't need to do this. Though the House of Blues is hardly a casino lounge, there is a certain sadness in such a grand lady, such a commander of music in her own right, toddling in front of crowds to deliver a performance that can only be a shadow of its former self.

Etta James with the Roots at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.hob.com. Sun., 8:30 p.m. $46-$50. All ages.

 
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