Highline Ballroom – September 28
She sang as a child and grew up in Detroit alongside Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding, but she never became part of the Motown Sound and didn’t become a star. Yet Bettye LaVette made her first record at the age of 16, in 1962, and is currently celebrating 50 years in the music business. The enthusiastic following she has accrued, largely in the last decade, is sufficient to have led to a just-published autobiography and her latest CD, also just released. This Highline Ballroom appearance came at the beginning of an international series of one-nighters launching the book, A Woman Like Me, which she co-authored with David Ritz, and the CD, “Thankful and Thoughtful.”
As a promotional piece to generate sales, it probably worked. As a cabaret set, not so much.
For one thing, LaVette doesn’t have any greatest hits on which to build an arc for her act. Her greatest visibility came with two live performances that were televised: her show-stealing version of Pete Townshend’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors and her duet with Jon Bon Jovi of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Her charted singles, which date back to that 16-year-old’s 45rpm “My Man’s a Loving Man,” have been sparse. And all the songs in this set—save a nice a cappella gospel encore, “Walking Through This Desert I’m Not Scared”—are from the new album, thus they are still largely unknown as LaVette songs. Consequently there can be no “aha! moments” for even hardcore fans to look forward to, or for her to build up to. While her sources for songs are myriad and include country music, funk, and classic American and British rock (she devoted her entire previous CD to the latter) her interpretations are always solidly sung as the blues. She doesn’t so much cover songs as appropriate them in her own inimitable style, but, with only occasional exceptions, with an undifferentiated sameness from song to song.
Consider the current CD/performance set: Opening with Bob Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken,” LaVette goes on to say she’s “Old” (Christine Santelli), “Tired” (Chris Youldon, Savoy Brown), and “Crazy” (Gnarls Barkley). She’s from a “Dirty Old Town,” a song she likes so much she sings it twice, both on record and in performance. LaVette rewrote the Ewan MacColl/Rod Stewart/the Pogues lyrics to reflect place names in her downtrodden native Detroit. Her second, slower version of “Dirty Old Town” is even a self-described “dirge.” As if we don’t get the point, she adds Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.” From young female songwriters in Nashville LaVette found two songs, the more successful of which was “The More I Search, the More I Die” (Kim McLean). Her best and clearest delivery was on Tom Waits’s “Yesterday Is Here,” which in contrast to her previous selections held elements of hope and of being at peace. LaVette stood relatively still for this one, furthering its impact, and fewer technical problems allowed for a more precise rendition of lyrics while keeping her blues feeling intact. Otherwise, by the time she got to the set’s closer, “Thankful and Thoughtful” (Sly Stone), you could be forgiven for wondering just what she was thankful for and thoughtful about.
The svelte LaVette at 66 looked great, and her trademark howling rasp was potent whenever it overcame a serious imbalance in the Highline’s sound system that night. Music director and keyboardist Al Hill and guitarist Brook Lucas were largely able to break through the sound barrier but drummer Dale Phillips and bass player Charles Bartell badly overpowered their principal, perhaps through no fault of their own. LaVette, who badly needs a director for a room this size, tended to wander the stage, even during ballads, and the lighting director was often helpless to keep on her. She forgot the lyrics to “Old” even though she had contributed one line, about not going anywhere unless it was near a rest room. None of her band or road crew had the words to prompt her, and she stopped singing and laughed it off: “That’s not the song I thought I was going to forget the lyrics to.” Most of these problems would be solved by appearing in a more intimate venue, such as the Carlyle, where LaVette had a successful engagement last spring, or doing a set alone with the estimable Al Hill, as she has done at Joe’s Pub.
About the Author
Robert Windeler is the author of 18 books, including biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Burt Lancaster. As a West Coast correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine, he covered movies, television and music, and he was an arts and entertainment critic for National Public Radio. He has contributed to a variety of other publications, including TV Guide, Architectural Digest, The Sondheim Review, and People, for which he wrote 35 cover stories. He is a graduate of Duke University in English literature and holds a masters in journalism from Columbia, where he studied critical writing with Judith Crist. He has been a theatre critic for Back Stage since 1999, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and is a member of The Players and the American Theatre Critics Association.