Humble performer describes herself as ‘an overnight success that took 50 years to happen.’
At an age when many are thinking about retirement, Bettye LaVette is just hitting her stride. LaVette’s phenomenal performance at on Feb. 4, proved that, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Those who were fortunate enough to get tickets for this particular concert witnessed a show unlike any other.
LaVette, 66, recorded her first album at age 16. However, her career largely stalled, and although she made music steadily throughout the decades, it wasn’t until the release of her 2005 CD, “Got My Own Hell to Raise” that she first received the acclaim she was due. LaVette specializes in reinterpreting other musicians’ songs in her own inimitable style. “Got My Own Hell to Raise” was a cover album of songs all written by other female musicians. Her latest CD, 2010’s “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook,” is a collection of covers of bands such as the Who and the Beatles.
At the Landmark concert, LaVette was accompanied by musical director Alan Hill on keyboards, Brett Lucas on guitar, Charles Bartels on bass, and Darryl Pierce on drums. LaVette, wearing spike heels and a sequined top, looked fit and totally commanded the stage – dancing from side to side, and leaning out to personally engage the audience. They opened with a funky version of the Beatles’ “The Word” which sounded about as un-Beatles-like as could be. LaVette takes each song and makes it her own – a combination of R&B, funk, soul, and rock. What she does is more primal scream than chanteuse. She unleashes her emotions in a raw, primitive way that is absolutely mesmerizing.
The audience was captivated from the start. The applause was thunderous, accompanied by whistling and shouting. It’s hard to pick out the highlights, since the entire show was so on target from start to end, but there were some extra-extraordinary moments. Her explosive version of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” was thrilling. Another winner was the gut-wrenching “Your Turn to Cry,” which LaVette delivered with all the pathos and angst it deserved. Over the course of the evening, LaVette covered a wide and unexpected collection of songs, including Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy,” Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” and Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream” – from whose lyrics the title of the CD, “Got My Own Hell to Raise,” came. Her versions sound absolutely nothing like the originals – some were almost completely unrecognizable. She reinterpreted and reinvented each song. Her version of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me,” which she performed at the Kennedy Center in 2008 was simply mind-blowing.
Throughout the show, LaVette told stories about her past, her struggles in the music business, and how, after 50 years of performing, she became “an overnight success.” Coming across as interesting, charming, emotional and humble, LaVette engaged the audience like the pro she is.
One of the most memorable numbers was LaVette’s cover of Etta James’ “Damn Your Eyes,” performed as a tribute to the recently departed James. There is no doubt that LaVette gives her all to her craft – her rendition was powerful and moving.
The back-up band was excellent, and I must note that in particular, guitarist Brett Lucas was primo. His guitar break in “They Call It Love” was exceptionally tasteful, but all of his solos were well-played – plus, he made it look effortless.
LaVette ended the show with an a cappella version of “I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got.” You could hear a pin drop in the theater. She finished to deafening applause as the audience leapt to its feet. On Landmark’s Facebook page later that night, someone half-jokingly suggested having an entire season of nothing but Bettye LaVette. I couldn’t agree more.
Concert photos by Stephen Sandick Photography.