Ted said to say about Etta James's performance at Whiting Auditorium Friday night, "She takes her diminishments with a certain degree of bumptious grace." He adds (exceptionally glib on this Saturday morning) that those diminishments, including a recent loss of 200 pounds after gastric bypass surgery, didn't seem to affect her rich contralto voice. (We did hear somebody say on the way out, "She's lost some of her range," but what would you expect from a 70-year-old rhythm and blues chanteuse who battled heroin addiction for decades and has been hitting the road since she was 15?)
We were in the third row, just to the left of center, and her aged-ness was at times, as Ted further commented, a bit macabre. Moving clearly pains her, and she sat during much of her performance in a padded chair with a padded armrest on one side. She sometimes leaned back, closing her eyes in a blues trance, and she seemed at those moments both extravagantly ecstatic and startlingly sexual. Of course she has always been unapologetically sexual, bawdy, outrageous in her lascivious tongue wagging and concupiscent remarks. She said, not once but twice, "I've been a clown since I was five years old." But now, coming from an old woman, her stage presence is clownish in a direction unnervingly close to the grotesque: heavily made up face with its big eyes and wide sensual mouth, her legs sometimes spread wide apart, her arthritic, beringed hands sometimes grazing her breasts and sometimes resting right between her thighs. She is a stereotype-busting performance artist of bold and wily innuendo. She's fascinating -- and a bit unsettling -- to watch.
From what I've just said, it might not seem obvious that I'm a huge Etta fan. But I totally am. I couldn't take my eyes off her, and last night she delivered some of the incomparable songs that have made her reputation -- "I'd rather go blind" -- one of her opening numbers -- gave me goosebumps that lasted into the next three songs, for example -- and "I want to ta-ta you baby." Two of the night's most riveting performances were Randy Newman's "You Can Keep Your Hat On" and Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart." Damn: the almost all white, almost all LATE middle aged crowd lustily sang along, with her encouragement. This is essentially the same show she's been delivering across the country, including at Carnegie Hall in 2006, where she even reportedly told the same story about going to Walmart with her grandchildren, but who cares -- it's a great show. She'll be performing next at Knoxville, Nashville and Detroit next week.
One other note: the Whiting, in its conscientious, politically correct way, provided surprising frosting for the show: its two deaf interpreters, who got into the sexy songs with remarkable panache. The slim, shaved-headed signer for "You Can Keep Your Hat On," for example, had most of the men in the audience and half the Roots Band watching her as closely as if she was Naja Karamuru stripping in a Boston burlesque house. I don't know how many deaf folks were in the audience, but she put on a memorable show for everyone there.
My husband, riding the high of recovery from an attack of the flu that's been plaguing us all, said, "Etta doesn't have the bawdy she used to." He gets points for this clever remark. But I think her bawdiness, expressed from that creaky body and the still amazing voice, is astonishing.
P.S. Etta's "Roots Band," as expected, was fabulous -- tight, cookin', irresistible. It features two of her sons, Donto and Sammeto. They're hot.
P.P.S. Where was the Flint Journal review of this performance? I scoured through all Sunday sections and came up with nothin'. Is this what we can expect after the departure of Doug Pullen -- a shriveling of local news? I expect so.