Live Last Night: Bettye LaVette

For a soul diva as brilliant as Bettye LaVette, toiling in obscurity for about 42 out of her 47 years in showbiz is a tragedy worth getting worked up about. But some dryness in her vocal cords at a half-full 9:30 club? Ain't no thing.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

Plenty has happened since LaVette last headlined in the area [CLARIFICATION: before a paying crowd], on Halloween 2007, when she performed a devastating set at the Barns of Wolf Trap.

She sang at the Kennedy Center Honors last December. A month later, she sang Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" at the "We Are One" Inaugural concert with Jon Bon Jovi. (Yeah, but it worked!) Last week, she played "The Tonight Show."

That's exposure you can't buy, and still there was room to stretch out at the 9:30 last night. There's no accounting for taste.

The star came out swinging with "The Stealer," a tune recorded for "Child of the Seventies," the shoulda-coulda-woulda-been-career-making LP that sat in the Atlantic Records vaults for three decades after she cut it in 1972. A gritty, spitty declaration to "steal your love," it's a pledge to first-timers in the audience. Given the way things have gone for her since "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise" revived her career in 2005, there are some of those in every house.

Before the harrowing "Choices," LaVette remarked the she's "really not much of a music enthusiast," making her admiration for George Jones -- from whom she learned the stark recovery ballad -- all the more significant. A chugging-funk take of recent 9:30 club visitor Lucinda Williams' "Joy" had the 63-year-old LaVette grooving in her high heels, climaxing in a salvo of off-mike cries of "Never!"

Next came a chronology of LaVette's early-'60s near-miss with stardom: 1962's "My Man, He's a Loving Man," a hit when she was just 16, bounced infectiously; "You Never Change," "Let Me Down Easy" and 1969's deflowerment anthem, "He Made a Woman Out of Me," all followed in rapid succession.

Then something marvelous happened: LaVette started missing notes. Or rather, she started having trouble singing while dancing. Conferring with her bandleader (and the audience) on an impromptu set of slow jams, she folded her legs into a yoga pose ("a senior citizen stance," she called it) and sat down on the stage to belt out "The High Road," followed by John Prine's "Souvenirs" and Willie Nelson's "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces."

For the crowd on the 9:30 floor, this section of the show was probably not a win. But from the balcony - where most people were seated themselves -- it was riveting to watch an artist with decades of practice rolling with the punches adapt and reassert command of a gig she sensed was slipping away from her.

She apologized repeatedly (and unnecessarily) for the hoarseness of her voice, and for the unplanned preponderance of tearjerkers, but never with a trace of panic or at the cost of an ounce of her dignity. And the ballads that made up the 80-minute show's entire second half, save for the sinewy autobiographical closer, "Before the Money Came," were killers.

Other than an arrow in a singer's pride, what's the harm reaching for a note you don't hit now and then? It's soul music. Emotion counts way more than technique, never more than in this age of bloodless Auto Tune pitch-correction. And the way LaVette claimed Elton John's "Talking Old Soldiers" as her own, or wrung out "Close as I'll Get to Heaven," left no doubt about the strength of her soul.

-- CHRIS KLIMEK

By J. Freedom du Lac |  March 10, 2009; 12:08 PM ET Live Last Night
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Your statement that Bettye Lavette last headlined in the DC area in 2007 is wrong. I saw Bettye Lavette on September 28, 2008, headline at the Bluebird Festival at Prince Georges Community College in Largo, Maryland which is certainly as much a part of the DC area as Wolf Trap.

Posted by: outsider8 | March 10, 2009 1:13 PM

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