Bettye LaVette – The Viper Room, L.AA Woman Like Me, with noted writer David Ritz, which has been optioned for a biopic by producer John Wells and Alicia Keys, and the question arises, “Why isn’t Bettye more popular?” Signed to Anti- Records for a series of critically acclaimed albums, including a selection of British rock covers and 2012’s Thankful N’ Thoughtful, which featured covers of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Black Keys, Sly Stone and Tom Waits, the 68-year-old soul singer is a spirited throwback, a force of nature who lives out her up-and-down career in front of our eyes.
This rare appearance at the Viper Room, which she’s never played, is part of the fabled Sunset Strip club’s 21st anniversary, and if that wasn’t occasion enough, LaVette brought her A-game, wrenching the ache behind each song, perfectly abetted by her four-piece band, featuring musical director/keyboardist Al Hill and tasty lead/slide guitarist Brett Lucas.
LaVette starts off with a funky cover of Free’s “The Stealer” (from a previously unreleased album recorded for Atco in 1972, then reissued as part of a 2001 album, Souvenirs) and follows it up with Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken,” on last year’s Thankful N’ Thoughtful, joking about a song selection that borrows “from all 19 of my careers.” She makes Tom Waits’ “Yesterday Is Here” her own/ When she sings, “All our dreams come true/Baby up ahead,” she has a lifetime of broken promises to back it up.
Dubbing herself a “soul stylist,” not a singer, Bettye leans into Ray Charles’ “They Call It Love,” calling him one of her major influences, before tackling Lucinda Williams’ funk-driven “Joy,” calling her one of the few women “who could possibly outdrink me,” taking a moment to admonish her band for “trying to confuse me because they’re younger than me.” She rolls into her take on “Your Time to Cry,” from her aborted 1972 album, claiming, as she always does, “Joe Simon sang it, but I sing it better,” wailing away on the refrain, “It’s all over,” like she knows whereof she sings. A slowed-down, sensuous, almost unrecognizable version of the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is next, before she introduces a song “usually associated with Chevrolet trucks,” fellow Motor City native Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock,” rubbing her hands over her body as Lucas provides a slinky slide accompaniment. Her version of the Bobbie Gentry hit, “He Made a Woman Out of Me” shows Bettye capable of a country twang, a song she originally recorded back in 1970.
“Love Reign O’er Me” is a highlight, Hill’s guitar licks gently taking the song to Bettye’s scat climax. LaVette thanks us for showing support for “someone older than Justin Bieber… hell, these shoes are older than Justin Bieber,” before self-deprecatingly calling her current dates the “Coming Out of the Crypt 50th Anniversary” tour, Joan Rivers suddenly reincarnated as a soul diva.
The tour de force reading of “Close As I’ll Get to Heaven” is Bettye’s theme song, equating the stage to her only sanctuary, wandering off it to finish in the middle of the now-riveted quorum of L.A. hipsters in her thrall. “I sure ain’t giving up the fight,” she howls, and you can’t help but fall in line. By the time she gets to a cover of Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream,” whose lyrics provided the name of her album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, the band members split the stage one by one, leaving Bettye all alone for an a cappella take on Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got,” as she describes walking through a hot desert, “but I’m not scared,” finally concluding off-mic, her unamplified voice drifting off, as she basks in our admiration.
It’s a remarkable performance that makes you wonder, is there a better soul singer alive?
UPCOMING BETTYE LAVETTE SHOWS:
Sept 14, 2014 – Songs of Love & Revolution @ City Winery
Multiple artist event, Bettye accompanied by guitarist Richard Sussman New York City, NY
Sept 28, 2014 – Roots N Blues Festival Columbia, MO
Oct 11, 2014 – Festival Place Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada
Oct 15, 2014 – Espace Julien Marseille, France
Oct 17, 2014 – Chapiteau De La Pepiniere Nancy, France
Oct 18, 2014 – Cosmopolite Oslo, Norway
Oct 20, 2014 – Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s Elmwood Hall Belfast, Ireland
Dec 12, 2014 – Lyric Theatre Blacksburg, VA
Dec 13, 2014 – BlackRock Center For The Arts Germantown, MD
Feb 14, 2015 – Flato Markham Theatre Markham, Ontario, Canada
Feb 17, 2015 – Neat Cafe/Schoolhouse Stage Burnstown, Ontario, Canada
Feb 19, 2015 – Grand Theatre Kingston, Ontario, Canada