Bettye LaVette is Worthy!

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Bettye LaVette is the real deal – a performer so genuine that one leaves her shows feeling stunned and emotionally wasted. LaVette’s performance at Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at LIU Post on Friday, February 12, was simply breathtaking.

The first time I heard LaVette was a decade ago on WFUV. The song was Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” and it was so stunning that I stopped everything I was doing and yelled “what was THAT??” A WFUV DJ (perhaps John Platt) kindly educated the radio audience (including me) about Bettye LaVette and I’ve been an admirer ever since.

For her Tilles Center show, LaVette was accompanied by music director and keyboard player Alan Hill, guitarist Brett Lucas, drummer Darryl Pierce and bassist James Simonson – all high-level and well-practiced musicians. It’s hard to believe that LaVette turned 70 this past month and has been in the music industry for over 50 years. She puts more into a performance than musicians a fraction of her age.

While she is known as a keen interpreter of other people’s songs, I believe what she does goes far beyond interpretation. She takes a song and makes in hers in such a way that I can hardly ever go back to listening to the original version.

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LaVette opened with Bob Dylan’s “Unbelievable” from her new Grammy-nominated CD, Worthy. During the course of the evening, she performed 10 of the 11 tracks from the CD, skipping only the title track. The CD is a great mix of diverse songs. Some of the standouts in her recent performance included the Rolling Stones’ “Complicated,” a fantastic bluesy version of “Just Between You, Me and The Wall, You’re a Fool” by James Brown (with some excellent guitar work by Brett Lucas), and a heartbreaking version of “Wait” by Lennon and McCartney. Particularly touching was “Where a Life Goes” which LaVette said reminded her of her older sister who had passed away. Brett Lucas’ beautiful guitar solo added the perfect touch.

In addition to her new CD, LaVette played a few favorites, including “Joy” – which is always a thrill to witness in person. LaVette shouts, screams, growls, moans, howls – her delivery of songs is simply riveting. Another standout was her otherworldly performance of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me,” which she performed at the Kennedy Center for Roger Daltry and Pete Townsend (who looked appropriately stunned).

A tip of the hat should go to whoever created the stage direction for LaVette’s exit. She and the band performed Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream” and then one by one the band members put down their instruments and walked off the stage, leaving LaVette by herself in a pool of light. It seemed like the whole audience held its collective breath as LaVette performed a beautiful a cappella version of “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” As she walked off the stage after the thunderous applause, I caught a glimpse of someone waiting in the wings to wrap her in a robe and escort her away, and I could only imagine what it takes out of a person to give a performance like that.

Do yourself a favor – see Bettye LaVette perform live. You will not regret it.

Upcoming performances at the Tilles Center include the Dance Theatre of Harlem (Feb 28th), Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story (March 5th) and Los Lobos/Ballet Folklorico de Mexico show (March 6th). For information on these and other shows at the Tilles Center, visit www.tillescenter.org

Image credit: Steven Sandick

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