Etta James tore up audiences while at Chess Records in the Sixties. She opens this new set with the Otis Redding classic “I Got the Will,” with horns blaring and former Muscle Shoals drummer Roger Hawkins keeping time. On the rest of the album, her first entirely new one in almost seven years, James proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that she’s got more than just the will.
This is powerful R&B without many concessions to music after, say, Al Green’s Seventies hits. You can probably thank James’s appearance in Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n‘ Roll and the success of the Robert Cray Band for helping the record get made in the first place. For the way it rocks and rolls and testifies and sings, though, thank Nashville-based keyboardist and producer Barry Beckett, another Muscle Shoals alum.
That’s not to take a single phrase or shout away from James herself. Twenty years after she sang “Tell Mama” and “I’d Rather Go Blind,” her voice stretches out with more sureness and authority than ever. Her intricate ballad singing in remarkable performances of “The Jealous Kind,” “Damn Your Eyes” and “One Night” is as direct as it is moving, and when she wants to burn down houses on songs like “Jump into My Fire” and “Shakey Ground,” she’s just as good. The musicians on the album don’t hear the music as a bunch of great old Sixties soul licks, or as a chance to reminisce. They play it with the attitude that you can find power and glory in traditional R&B songs right now, especially when Etta James sings them.