Live Music: Bettye LaVette at Royce Hall

By Mike Finkelstein

On Saturday night Bettye LaVette laid it down (and I mean way down) powerfully at Royce Hall for one of the final performances of this year’s UCLA LIVE calendar.   She pithily interpreted each song, cutting it to the quick.  These were songs we’ve all likely heard before, but in this show LaVette used them to take us into a very intense emotional realm.  There were several times where it looked as though she might actually have been ready to weep.

Ms. LaVette is one of the most compelling soul singers around and she is currently riding a wave of unprecedented recognition after some 50 years in the music business.  Her latest album is the Grammy nominated Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, in which she takes a set of ubiquitous top shelf album rock tracks and makes them into something very personalized.   There is certainly some irony to the idea of a project like this.   She pointed out that these songs “were written by a bunch of young English guys, who were high, and now they are being interpreted by a 66 year old black woman…who’s drunk.”

Bettye LaVette

It’s an intriguing idea for a howling female soul singer to tackle British rock ‘n roll and it has been touched on before by Tina Turner.  LaVette’s voice does resemble Turner’s, particularly when she speaks over the band.  But where Tina moves on to a polished delivery, LaVette stays with the core sentiment and goes much farther into the emotional realm.

Her voice is not silky smooth, it’s actually husky and gravelly, but man, is it ever expressive.  She also has a classic snarl, but she doesn’t overdo it with this or any other technique.  Instead, she uses every drop of what she’s got to bring out all the meaning in the song.

LaVette’s takes on familiar songs were far from simple nods to classic rock.  The arrangements were dark, sparse, deliberate, slow, and they basically left the performers and the audience nowhere to hide from the raw emotion of each song.  This type of expression is rare and as satisfying as it gets to watch…but it is draining, too.

From George Jones (“Choices I’ve Made”) to Dolly Parton (“Little Sparrow”) to George Harrison (Isn’t It A Pity”) to Ringo Starr (It Don’t Come Easy”)and The Who (“Love Reign O’er Me”), Lavette and her band broke down each song to its most poignant and painful emotional essence — and then built it up again in their own style.   But this was mesmerizing, sweet pain — you couldn’t help but be drawn into the spectacle of a standard FM rock song being transformed into something new, with teeth.  There were very deliberate bass lines from Charley Bartels, haunting volume swells and bouncing vibrato from guitarist Brett Lucas, as well as steady support from Alan Hill (keyboards and music director), and Darryl Pierce (drums).

Plainly put, they actually did reinvent the tunes — marvelously slowing them down, and then paring them down to suck the marrow from each.  Not long into every number, it really seemed that this was her song, way beyond just a cover and perhaps written just for her.

There were several show-stopping moments in this show, but LaVette’s version of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity”  was astonishing.   While George’s words are deep and reflective, his arrangement is rather lush, somber yet beautiful – an arrangement that dulls the edge of the lyrics a bit.  So, LaVette and her band took those very same words and slowed them down, holding them up like a water snake for us to really get a load of the power they held.  Most of the time, she barely did more than speak the words but it was her rasp and her slow, knowing voice of pain that made them so powerful.   A performance like that knocks an audience right on its ear with the emotions that such immediacy can create.  Here, as in most of the other songs, the words took on several new magnitudes of sharpness when LaVette sang them:

Isn’t it a pity
Isn’t it a shame
How we break each other’s hearts
And cause each other pain
How we take each other’s love
Without thinking anymore
Forgetting to give back
Isn’t it a pity         

Opening the show was Jon Cleary’s Philthy Phew, who gave the audience a tutorial in New Orleans flavor.  The trio set up facing each other more than facing the house.  The piano was turned back towards the drums (Doug Belote) and the bass (the incomparable Matt Perrine) faced the piano.  It was actually a nice effect for the band to feed off each other and for the crowd.   We could see Cleary’s hands, which at times were in an unbelievable state of motion, cascading up and down both extremes of the keyboard with the boogie-woogie runs.

Cleary is a very interesting cat who, at age 17, made a sojourn through New Orleans just before beginning University in his native England.  But he never left and has spent his career learning from and playing the music of some of the best musicians the Big Easy has produced.  For this show he displayed his complete grasp of their styles, delving several times into the likes of Allen Toussaint, Earl King and Jellyroll Morton.

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To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


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