When I first heard soul/blues artist Bettye LaVette's storyand then her musicI was outraged.
LaVette recorded a legendary debut album (Child of the Seventies) in 1972, only to see it shelved by some candy-ass executive at Atco Records. This was music that only saw the light of day because almost two decades later a French record label hunted down the masters, acquired the rights, released it as Souvenirs (Art and Soul Records) and set off LaVette's long-delayed emergence.
Now after four albums on Anti-Records, three Grammy nominations and performances before two sitting presidentsincluding one inaugurationshe's back with her autobiography (A Woman Like Me, co-written with David Ritz, Blue Rider Press) and a new album, Thankful 'N Thoughtful (Anti-Records).
As an interpretive vocalist who does not write, Thankful could be construed as yet another covers album from her. But as typified by I've Got My Own Hell to Raise (2005, Anti-Records), which was a selection of songs by female composers, or Interpretations; The British Rock Songbook (2010, Anti-Records) which remodeled well-known brit singles from the '60s and '70s, LaVette approaches the music and turns it into far more than what even the composers had in mind. Don't believe me: Have a look at Pete Townshend's reaction to her version of The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" on YouTube.
In the case of Thankful, LaVette covers obscure songs by well-known artists (with the exception of one fairly recent hit) and manages to not only do the music industry a favor but also to justify my rage. She's still one of a kind and her mastery of soul/blues is literally beyond comprehension. The only way to describe her through her new album and her recent two-night stand at City Winery is to think of her as a sorceress, but even that falls short.
The most famous track here is "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley, a song that begs for a bare-knuckled approach. LaVette's take is to shear it of its groove, strip it naked and punctuate the emotion behind the lyrics. Where Cee Lo Green crooned, LaVette jabsnot with anger or confrontation but with common sense, exasperation, and reason. Through this song, LaVette makes it a declaration of this era's madness for anything you want it to meaninnocent, talented, intelligent children routinely gunned down in the streets; decent, loving individuals denied the right to marry or serve their country; religious institutions that deny and camouflage abuses as a matter of policy; and perverted politics that corrupt there purpose. Green hints at the rot, but LaVette goes for the throat.
LaVette's reading of Neil Young's "Everyone Knows This is Nowhere" goes even further. Where Young seemed to sing about being trapped in a nowhere town or romance, LaVette rips through it like she's trapped in a nowhere life. Either interpretation exposes the situation as a no-win but LaVette's reading is either of defiance (fight) or defeat (suicide); however, the way she sings makes it hard to tell which.
If Thankful seems like a downer, and a complex one at that (after all, these are the blues), her show at City Winery was a qualified gas. Strutting out in a black pants ensemble and sensible low heels, she was spry, sassy and playfully sexy. Better still, City Winery seemed custom-made for hera large elegant room of exposed brick and low lighting, it has an intimacy that reeks of informal class. Comfortably spacious while intimate (yes, the wind flowed freely, the wait staff was shockingly youthful and knowledgeable, the food was plentiful and exotic, and the feel of the room was unhurried and friendly) the set-up allowed LaVette's sorcery to permeate the room. (Yes, even the wait staff had to routinely stop and applaud her.)
Before tearing into Bob Dylan's "Everything Is Broken," she cracked that Dylan "writes too many damn words" but she went right ahead and turned it into something searing, engaging and emotionally complicated, anyway. When she took on Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," she made the quaint concept of searching for true love a quest for sincere and genuine friendship and companionship. Through LaVette's reading, Young's whiny lament became a quest for connection, warmth, understanding and camaraderie which brings me back to my aforementioned rage. This is music that I needed to hear as a young man decades ago, and to be denied hearing LaVette for all this time is a crime in itself. To the record executive who canned her 40 years ago I say, "Rot in hell." To LaVette, I say, "Go, girl."
Heads up: Aretha Franklin will be playing The Venue at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Ind., on Saturday, Dec. 29.