I’ve been watching shows for forty-plus years. Seen them all: Aretha, Otis, Marvin, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight and dozens more. I’ve seldom been at a loss to describe a performer or a performance. Bettye LaVette leaves me speechless. She did the first time I saw her live a good eight years ago at a tiny club in San Francisco when she left grown men crying as she poured heart and soul into staples in her repertoire like “Let Me Down Easy” and “Your Turn To Cry.” Much has changed in the ensuing years: as she commented on Thursday in London, “I never thought I’d be saying this but I have a new album – and it’s my third for the same record company!” Indeed. Anti Records, known more for punk than funk, has been behind Bettye for the past six years or so. Each record has built on the last and her latest (“Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook”) has, she later revealed in a post-show chat, has already sold faster than either of its predecessors!
Bettye’s current show is understandably focused on the new CD. While some diehard soul music fans may neither appreciate the material given its original derivation nor understand Bettye’s thinking in choosing to put her own stamp on songs that first gained prominence decades ago, this diehard soul music man does. From the opening bars of a funky funky version of The Beatles’ “The Word” through a poignant and moving reading of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pty,! Ms. LaVette delivers. I have a personal preference for ballads so tunes like “Nights In White Satin” (transformed into a deep and meaningful opus) and The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” (the song which Bettye performed at The Kennedy Honors in 2008) will always evoke a response. Truth is, Bettye had me teary-eyed more than once and on songs – like Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” never a song I necessarily felt drawn to – she excels. On uptempo cuts like “Why Does Love Have To Be So Sad,” Bettye showcases the kind of energy associated with the likes of Tina Turner and indeed, assessing the entirety of her performance, one can’t help but consider that she is a cross between Tina and the late Otis Redding who imbued his own shows with the same kind of raw and honest emotion that is the LaVette stock in trade.
But comparisons are pretty useless in this instance: Bettye LaVette is one of a kind as her final two selections reinforce. Acknowledging the persistence of British soul fans who have stood by her for decades, Bettye was simply brilliant on her time-honored “Let Me Down Easy,” which I first heard courtesy the late Dave Godin in 1965. She returned for a much-deserved encore with an accapella rendition of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got.” She was singing her heart out unaccompanied and as I listened to Bettye’s wrenching performance, the song became intensely personal: I found myself reflecting on my own journey, the ups and downs and a sense of contentment that even without the big house, the big bank account or the love of my life, it’s all good. And that is the power of Bettye LaVette, the ability to reflect real life through her gift. Ain’t no one like her and if anyone ever asks for a definition of soul, Bettye LaVette is it. No need for a title, no need for a nickname, she’s the real thing.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.