(Music Review) Bettye LaVette at the Colonial Theatre

Bettye LaVette
The Colonial Theatre
Pittsfield, Mass.
Saturday, May 26, 2012

Review by Seth Rogovoy

Bettye LaVette

(PITTSFIELD, Mass.) – Soul singer Bettye LaVette displayed why she is utterly worthy of the laurels and kudos she has been receiving these past few years in concert at the Colonial Theatre on Saturday night, where she treated the audience to an intimate, almost cabaret-like performance featuring her minimalist, jazzy renditions of contemporary and classic rock tunes and showcasing her distinctive, gritty, soulful yelp.

LaVette tasted a glimpse of renown in the early 1960s on the R&B charts with a few hit numbers – none of which, oddly, she sang on Saturday night – that attracted the attention of the likes of James Brown and garnered her touring spots and recording deals, none of which ever fulfilled the promise of her early success. By the early 1970s, LaVette was effectively over as a recording artist, although she continued to perform, record and even enjoyed some work on Broadway.

But it wasn’t until just a few years ago that things finally clicked for LaVette, who is now riding a string of critically acclaimed and Grammy Award-nominated albums in a late-career swell, or, as the 66-year-old singer playfully referred to this period on Saturday night, “sudden overnight success … that only took fifty years.”

If LaVette harbors any bitterness, it hardly showed, as the limber, lithe singer moved with the confident swagger of a Motown dancer, commanded the stage and led her band like a seasoned pro, and seemingly has lost nothing from her colorful, gluey, elastic vocals.

In her latter-day career, LaVette specializes in reinterpreting classic rock songs and works by contemporary songwriters, mostly not from the R&B field. Rather, LaVette finds the soul music hidden in the works of country artists – she sang tunes by George Jones, Dolly Parton and Lucinda Williams – and British singer-songwriters – she tackled George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Pete Townshend.

Bettye LaVette

Regarding the latter, there is some score-settling in LaVette taking on that body of work, which she acknowledged on Saturday night. “They were all written by young white British guys who were high – now they are being sung aby an old black woman who is drunk,” she kidded (presumably). More than that, though, LaVette’s efforts right the historical wrong, whereby the success of British Invasion songwriters who were so influenced by African-American music wound up, by no fault of their own, knocking the likes of Bettye LaVette and dozens of other artists off of all but Black American radio stations in the 1960s.

Ultimately, though, LaVette’s is a musical project, and what deserves note is her uncanny genius in finding the jazz and soul that lies within songs like Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow,” Lucinda Williams’s “Joy” – which she turned into a dirty funk tune – and George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity,” which she handled with deftness and interpretive sophistication of a Billie Holiday.

LaVette’s backing combo, a pianist, bassist,  guitarist and drummer, served her well, if without any particular verve or flash. Her vocals were front and center, which is where they needed and wanted to be, although the music occasionally cried out for the counterpoint that a good horn section or other instrumental coloration beyond the imagination of that provided by her musicians might have added.

And while the audience was enthusiastic and rewarded LaVette with a standing ovation at the end, the energy level of the evening was subdued, through no apparent fault of LaVette, who gave it her all for 75 minutes straight. And for that, she deserves recognition and more.

Press photography was not permitted at this concert.


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