Fifty years in the business, trained in the school of hard knocks, Bettye LaVette (pictured left), appeared at the Jazz Café in the wake of the venue’s recently announced sale to a private equity firm. LaVette, though, is the antithesis of corporate blandness. While, as she said herself during her chats to the audience, widespread success has not come her way, nonetheless she has a firm following as an “international” artist, as she proudly put it. Her new Craig Street-produced album for Anti, the label that did so much to remind everyone of the great Solomon Burke late in his career, has plenty of evidence contained within its covers as to just why LaVette has a critical reputation and strong following that is bigger than even she would expect, and a new audience attracted to the honesty and soulfulness of her sound.
With Bettye, a Detroit soul survivor as some of the stories in her new autobiography A Woman Like Me goes some way to prove, were her musical director Alan Hill on keyboards, Brett Lucas, guitar, Charles Bartels, bass, and Darryl Pierce, drums. The band, helmed in the rhythm department by the superb Detroiter Pierce, was up to the hard task of giving her a tight infectious groove and room for Lucas’ rhythm guitar breaks and his fat arpeggiated chords where necessary.
Big man Bartels held the line, and it needed to be strong. LaVette, frequently compared to Tina Turner but with a more expressively flexible emotive style and vocal manner, blues drenched, and real, was looking trim for her years. She’s 66 she told us unabashedly, with hair cut short, she was more than happy when the spotlight on her switched to a pink hue; “blue light doesn’t suit black people,” she said with a wry grin.
Agile on the stage with a sideways shuffle going on, and plenty of eye contact with the audience particularly later with a lively fan who she crouched down to talk to off mike (as much to shut her up as anything else) as the band played a persuasive vamp to keep the vibe going. You could have listened to them all night in a parked style the Funk Brothers would have been proud of.
LaVette has a highly durable, very strong contralto that goes straight for the emotions. Beginning jauntily with Lennon and McCartney’s ‘The Word’ from Rubber Soul, an early settling point was on Bob Dylan’s ‘Everything Is Broken’, a song featured to effect on LaVette’s latest album Thankful N’ Thoughtful, with the Detroiter also covering a pair of Neil Young songs (including as she self deprecatingly said her “minor hit” ‘Heart of Gold’), and Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’. The first big talking point of the set, she turned the song into a slow burn with an entirely different atmosphere to the original monster hit.
She later dragged every emotion out of a song she told us has been keeping her going all these years, the pleading song ‘Let Me Down Easy’, which was the big achievement of the nearly two hour-long set, showing all LaVette’s consummate skills as a performer, it was both convincing and dramatic, and on this she became a female Otis Redding.
When the band left the stage she finished off with an a cappella gospel-infused ‘I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got’, delivered with a lingering vibrato and that look on her face that just said “take me as I am”, which the Camden crowd more than happily did.
– Stephen Graham
– photo courtesy of Stephen Fourie