Bettye LaVette: Stunning and Intense in the Flatiron District
Last night at Madison Square Park, soul survivor Bettye LaVette took care to emphasize her “surgence,” rather than resurgence. Throughout a riveting, electric hour onstage, she made it clear that her fifty years in the music business had been just as much of a struggle as her love life. Looking sleek and strong in a shimmery black dress and evoking Tina Turner, but with more range and more rage, LaVette and her impressively subtle four-piece backing band ran through a series of cult favorites as well as a handful of stunning reinventions of classic rock standards from her most recent album Interpretations: the British Rock Songbook. One of the most affecting of those was Neil Young’s Heart of Gold, which pianist Alan Hill opened by vamping on the hook from Tracks of My Tears, a riff that the band had toyed with to powerful effect on a handful of earlier songs. LaVette recalled how her version had been released as a single just a few weeks after the 1972 original, only to see her record label shelve it – as had happened to her so many times in the past – when it didn’t click with radio execs. The band took their time with this one, swaying pensively and adding a cruelly unresolved jazziness at the end of the verse. When she hit the line “And I’m growing old,” angst stretching across her face as her voice broke up into grit, the effect was shattering.
As it was on the evening’s most intense number, Paul McCartney’s Blackbird. LaVette recalled that her inspiration to record the song came from story about the Beatles taking a shortcut through a park to enjoy a post-gig joint, where McCartney noticed a black woman alone on a bench, singing at the top of her lungs, giving him the impetus for the song. She admitted that the tale was apocryphal, but that it made a good story – and then rewrote it as a theme for her own life. “For me, the British invasion was a nemesis,” she revealed, speaking for the legions of black artists whose songs suddenly disappeared from AM radio as the Beatles and their legions of imitators moved in on their turf. “A bunch of young British white men, who were stoned,” she added dryly, who’d left behind their songs “To be interpreted by a 66-year-old black woman who’s drunk.” While LaVette’s reputation as a party animal has considerable basis in fact, she actually seemed the furthest thing from intoxicated. Transforming the song into a slow anthem in 6/8 time, she methodically worked her way up from matter-of-fact to the longing of a literally transcendent crescendo: “All of my life, I’ve been waiting for this moment to arrive.”
And the rest of the show left no doubt that it had arrived. LaVette’s “surgence” actually began back in the 90s; as she was quick to acknowledge, she’s finally reached the point where her entire body of work, dating from the 60s, has finally made it into print. She and the band – Hill on a variety of keyboards, plus Charles Bartels on bass, Brett Lucas on guitar and Darrell Pierce on drums – opened the show on a defiantly insistent note. On They Call It Love (from The Scene of the Crime, her collaboration with the Drive-By Truckers), she went off mic, shrugged her shoulders and asked the audience if they had any more idea than she did about how to keep a relationship afloat: nobody did. Choices, a country ballad originally written for George Jones, was transformed into a quietly regretful soul ballad. Likewise, George Harrison’s It Don’t Come Easy made a clenched-teeth cautionary tale.
LaVette joked that “the only woman who can drink more than me…possibly” was Lucinda Williams, author of Joy, which LaVette turn turned into a slinkily careening, desperation-tinged one-chord jam. She closed with a towering, wrenching, angst-fueled version of the bitter ballad Close As I’ll Get to Heaven, Hill’s string synthesizer adding a symphonic edge. The audience roared for an encore, so she treated them to a gospel-drenched, a-cappella take of Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got. Of all the veteran soul musicians who came thisclose but ultimately never reached the mass audience they deserved back in the records-and-radio era, LaVette reaffirmed her reputation as the most intense and emotionally vivid of them all. She’s at Highline Ballroom celebrating the release of her forthcoming album and book, A Woman Like Me, on September 28 at 8 PM; $26 advance tickets are still available as of today but won’t last.