At 72, Soul Survivor Bettye LaVette Releases Her Best Album At a Sold-Out Show at City Winery
Friday night at City Winery, soul music legend Bettye LaVette bragged that she was the oldest living artist with a new record deal. She joked with the sold-out crowd, explaining that at 72, she’s at the point where she needs a cheat sheet – except that onstage, she can barely read the thing. But she’s never sung better, nor has she had such a great band behind her. It was a shattering performance by someone who’s dedicated herself to transcendence probably more for simple survival than as a career strategy.
LaVette was the first of a long line of soul music rediscoveries back in the 90s, rising from near destitution in Detroit to a level of popularity that had eluded her since a promising start as a teenager in the 1960s. Most recently, a member of her inner circle had floated the idea that she should do an album of Bob Dylan covers. That took shape with her latest release, Things Have Changed, streaming at youtube. A cynic would say that it’s the kind of last-ditch stunt a cash-starved label would pull, recycling whatever they have left in the vaults that still might generate any income. Yet LaVette reinvents these tunes, many of them on the obscure side, as the guy who wrote them never could. As Dylan cover albums go, the only two that rank alongside this one are Mary Lee’s Corvette’s thrilling, chilling live performance of Blood on the Tracks, and The Byrds Play Dylan.
The band behind LaVette had brilliance to match LaVette’s gritty, simmeringly impassioned vocals. Guitarist Brett Lucas was more slash than flash with his purist, pristine minor-key blues licks. Bassist James Simonson and drummer Darryl Pierce switched from swing to lowdown slink. Keyboardist Evan Mercier shifted between deep echoey shadows from his electric piano, to moody washes of organ.
LaVette didn’t waste time bringing the blue-flame intensity to redline with the album’s title track, stalking along over reverbtoned electric piano and Lucas’ minor-key surgical incisions. In her hands, “I’m locked in tight and I’m way out of range” took on as many meanings as its author possibly could have intended. Later in the set, the syncopated tension of The Times They Are A-Changin’ underscored the sudden relevance that song’s taken on since the fateful 2016 Presidential election. LaVette also mined new depths in a defiantly strutting version of Ain’t Talkin, a surreal travelogue in a world that grows ever more “mysterious and vague.”
The rest of the set followed a dynamic, up-and-down arc, from Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight – reinvented as Lou Reed soul by way of Karla Rose, maybe – to the Rhodesy, bluesy Seeing the Real You At Last, with a resolute backbeat drive as Steve Wynn could have done it.
Lucas and Simonson joined forces with suspenseful downward chromatic riffage to punctuate Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others) as LaVette channeled distant venom, yet held back from fullscale drama: she knows to always leave you wanting more. She explained that it had taken her a couple of bottles of champagne to get a handle on how to sing Emotionally Yours – but also that the song had made her cry. She encored with her one original of the night, Before the Money Came, a brisk career retrospective that was surprisingly much more sweet than bitter, the band giving it a summery Memphis groove.
LaVette’s current tour continues; lucky Oregonians can see her on April 22 at 7:30 at the Aladdin Theatre, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave. in Portland for $35, cheaper than any other recent show of hers. If soul or gospel music is your thing, don’t miss the Resistance Revival Chorus, who came out of the first Women’s March on Washington and whose allstar all-female cast sing lavish, brand-new gospel-flavored protest songs. They’re at City Winery on April 12 at 8 PM for $15.