Live review: Bettye LaVette, Neighborhood Theatre (1/17/2014)



Bettye LaVette
Neighborhood Theatre
Jan. 17, 2014

Bettye LaVette
  • Bettye LaVette

"The worst thing that can happen to a singer is to have a cold," Bettye LaVette confided to the Neighborhood Theatre crowd on Friday, Jan. 17, 2014. "And I got one." Pausing to find the right words, the diminutive package of powerful, soulful R&B explained her dilemma. "I got two choices: Take a decongestant which is like eating cotton, or do what I did and take nothin' and be... snotful."

Thankfully, the title of LaVette's latest LP is "Thankful and Thoughtful," not "Thankful and Snotful," and she delivered blistering, heart-wrenching and soul-shaking takes of choice cuts from that disc and the the rest of her superb back catalog. It was clear from her energetic, focused performance that it would take more than a mere cold to slow Lavette down or to dampen her incredible voice.

Indeed, that voice - elegant, elemental and awash in emotion - was the first thing the audience noticed. As her razor sharp, hip-rocking band barreled out of the gate with a fatback, funk cover of the Beatles' "The Word," Lavette started singing offstage. Yet the word "singing" hardly does justice to Lavette's vocal roller-coaster. Growling, purring, jumping for joy, Lavette did more than make this revered oldie her own. She wrung every last ounce of breath and emotion out of the Fab Four chestnut.

As keyboardist/musical director Alan Hill announced "The Great Lady of Soul," Lavette shimmied and strutted onstage, buttoning "The Word" with her kerosene-smooth, sandpapered alto. The crowd went wild. And that was just the first number.

James Simpson's bubbling-yet-earthy bass and drummer Daryl Pierce's snapping, in-the-pocket groove anchored the jazzy slink of "Everything is Broken," as Brett Lucas' insidious blues guitar kicked up whirling dust devils. Coupling the hard-as-nails brass of Tina Turner and the soaring gospel shout of Gladys Knight, Lavette transcended the tune's litany of broken minds and broken dream with a defiant message of hope.

Throughout the evening, Lavette's band was both loose-limbed and dead-on-the-money. Rocking and swaying, the four-piece cleared space for Lucas' sand-in-the-gasoline fretboard flights, Adams' stride piano excursions, Pierce's Billy Cobham thunder and Simpson's elastic bass, before snapping back together to turn on several bright shiny dimes. Yet the focus remained firmly on Lavette and her voice, by turns fluid, cutting, rafter-ratting and vulnerable.

The Tom Waits cover "Yesterday is Here," skated on jump and speakeasy blues before descending into a hoedown stomp. Emoting, gesturing, belting and baring her soul, Lavette transformed Dolly Parton's "Sparrow" into a walking blues-cum-triumphant soul shouter.

She sardonically acknowledged that singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams "may possibly be the only woman to out-drink me" before ramping up the funky swagger of Williams' sorrowful "Joy." The blues rock of Savoy Brown's "I'm Tired" sparked with electro-funk crackle as Lavette imbued the tune with a mix of disgust, resolution and triumph.

Striking a faux-dramatic pose, LaVette joked that the next tune will always be "associated in my heart with Chevy trucks", before riding a wave of gloriously greasy slide guitar over the grainy, searingly sexy heartland soul of Bob Seger's "Like a Rock."

The one-two punch of slow-burning torch anthem "The More I Search (The More I Die)" and majestic, liquid soul-jazz gem "Heaven" had the crowd cheering and on their feet. Working the room, zeroing in the the tune's beating heart, Lavette elevated "Heaven" to a take-no-prisoners testament of faith and determination. Lavette slowly exited as the black-suited band continued to vamp, crisp and cool-as-fuck before the stage's red velvet curtain.

Incredibly,the R&B powerhouse topped herself. Trouping back onstage after several minutes, LaVette brought "Heaven" back down to earth, channeling, chanting, shouting and transforming performance and song into a communal experience.

The band trouped off, leaving the encore spotlight to the Great Lady of Soul. Lavette's a cappella rendition of "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" was a revelation, terrifying and beautiful, stark and open-hearted. Entrusted to Lavette's expertise and empathy, Sinead O'Connor's signature tune became a secular gospel hymn, a song of praise to the human spirit, which was both embodied by Bettye Lavette and transmitted by her miraculous talent to the lucky souls in the Neighborhood audience.

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