She is a survivor, and a living testament of what God-given talent, determination, and a strong will of staying true to oneself can be in the harsh, treacherous world of the music industry. After more than fifty years in the music business, she’s still out on the road entertaining and singing songs. Bettye LaVette performed at The Howard Theatre on January 9th on her current “Fiftieth Anniversary Tour” to an intimate gathering of entranced LaVette fans and new devotees.
For five decades, the Detroit-raised Bettye LaVette has given interpretative skill to a song like no one else in the business. In fact, it’s that mastery of phrasing and her signature skill of rearranging other singers’ songs and making them her own, that has become her trademark. She is an artist. Her concert performance with a four-member band included songs from Lucinda Williams (“Joy”), Bob Dylan (“Everything is Broken”), George Harrison (“Isn’t it a Pity”), and Neil Young (“Heart of Gold.”) LaVette said, “Heart of Gold” was not the first Neil Young song she ever sang. She said in 1969, she sang one of his songs that never sold a single copy. (She didn’t name the tune).
Her eyes are closed. She trembles and waves her hand high, as the gravel and guts of LaVette’s tear in her voice vocals translate her life struggles, heartache, and lessons learned into a powerful melody of soulful reality. Her emotions play straight to her vocals. And, it is a personal gift that the two-time Grammy-nominated Bettye LaVette shares with all who encounter her voice and that unshakeable sound. It’s personal, because even if you are hearing her for the first time, one can’t help but sense that she has revealed to you an intimate piece of her soul – a depth of territory that is rarely met.
It is that gripping inner strength that once it grabs you – it doesn’t let go.
For eighty minutes, the laid back Bettye LaVette controlled the stage as she sang an inspired eclectic mix of American music styles: blues, funk, country, folk songs, and soul. The selected songs were particular tunes that she said she always liked but for whatever reason, never became hits. “So I’ve decided to put some of the many flop records back into the show,” she said. “And now,” there’s a dramatic pause before she speaks, “I no longer care what you think.”
After 50 years of show business and almost 70 years of life, why should she? In the true LaVette unfiltered style, she always speaks her mind.
With her 68th birthday just a few weeks away (on January 29th) – the fit and younger than her years – Bettye LaVette not only looks amazing in her black jumpsuit and high heeled pumps, she’ll tell you, she “sounds better than ever.” “Like all voices,” says LaVette, “mine has changed over the years. I’d like to think that the change has to do with wisdom.”
In between the heartfelt soul-singing, LaVette’s sass and swagger makes for a compelling evening of storytelling, as she openly speaks about her life, the history of song selections, and providing insight into some of the experiences connected with the songs. In 1962, she recorded a single, “My Man—He’s a Lovin’ Man” which became a Top Ten R&B hit. She reminisced about when she first performed the song at The Howard Theatre at the age of sixteen.
For years though – decades – Bettye LaVette was unsung.
It took her a while to “make it,” she said, because she “wouldn’t crossover.” But, be very clear, she is a legend. I didn’t discover Bettye LaVette until I saw her perform outside the Lincoln Memorial with Jon Bon Jovi as a part of President Obama’s first election Pre-Inauguration events. But it only took three minutes of her singing “Change is Going to Come” to have me as a forever fan. That appearance along with her 2008 Kennedy Center Honors performance renewed and revitalized her career. Since then she’s released a CD – Thankful and Thoughtful (2012) and in 2013 she wrote her riveting autobiography with David Ritz, A Woman Like Me.
So much of Bettye LaVette is put into the songs that she sings – not only physically, but with her emotional, gut wrenching heart and soul. There’s no schmaltz or sentimentality here.
With all the pathos life has to serve, she belts deeply felt lyrics and turns them into personal anthems.
The lasting memory and highlight of the evening were the closing song and the encore.
She doesn’t claim to be a songwriter, but she has written one song – the high energy, autobiographical, and fun –“Money.” Showing a polite, somewhat reserved audience the professional, showstopper that she is, Bette LaVette steps down off the stage and into the audience, mingling in between the aisles for the next several breathtaking minutes shaking hands and singing her heart out.The band leaves the stage. Bette LaVette soon follows. Fade to black.
She brings the crowd to their feet with whoops and cheers, and before we see her again, we hear her – offstage. As she proceeds from behind the curtain, she is singing Acapella, Sinead O’Conner’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”
She knows how to work an audience. Taking the center stage, her fists are clenched; she bends back and forth with a pained grimace on her face. Her voice roars.
The song ends. She drops the mic. And, a la James Brown style, she’s brought a cape that is placed on her back, as she struts off the stage. Bettye LaVette is an old school performer.
Her tenacious, enduring, gritty spirit is a sign of the times, and the mark of a rebel with an indelible yell who will not be denied.
Bettye LaVette Playlist:
1. “The Word”
3. “Isn’t It a Pity”
4. “Call It Love”
6. “The More I Search (The More I Die)”
8. “Like a Rock”
9. “Everybody Knows”
10. “Heart of Gold”
12. “Love Reign”
14. Encore – “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got”
Running Time: 80 minutes, including one encore.
Bette LaVette’s website.