It was, in short, a perfect night of music, one to cherish for decades to come.
Following an inspired opening set by Les McCann and Javon Jackson, Bettye LaVette sang her first notes off-stage and then joined her band for a dynamic rendition of the Beatles’ “The Word,” dancing steps that belied she was 65. She sang and moved like she was 25, and the word was love from there on out for a small but appreciative audience.
LaVette is a soul survivor in the truest sense, and her renaissance and rediscovery in the past decade underscore one of the great stories in music. Like Ray Charles and Mavis Staples, she makes any song her own, imbuing the lyrics with a sense of history and understanding.
LaVette’s deep rapport with the audience at The Egg meant that a rocking “I Still Want to be Your Baby” (from “The Scene of the Crime”) sounded like a candid invitation to seek truth in a world gone awry as much as it was a love song. Citing her 49 years in the music business, LaVette reminisced about how the British Invasion of the 1960s blindsided the soul music market. Ironically, her recent album, “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook,” has been receiving five-star reviews. “These are the songs of your youth, but the nemesis of mine,” LaVette said slyly with a trace of bitterness. What followed was extraordinary: George Harrison’s 1970 classic “Isn’t It a Pity?” became a deep rumination on the fickle nature of the music industry, as well as a call to listen and heal injustices.
Likewise, LaVette reworked Lucinda Williams’ “Joy,” a tough song about wanderlust, into a life-affirming chronicle of transcending those 49 years of broken promises and shelved albums, with the names of towns and studios edited in for autobiographical reference. Joe Simon’s
“Your Turn to Cry,” a ballad LaVette recorded in 1972, sounded like the hit that should have been, right down to its cathartic “it’s over” refrain.
Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy,” done in swampy blues style and featuring a hellacious solo by guitarist Brett Lucas, sounded like it was written for LaVette, who has indeed “paid some dues.” Taking the tempo up a few notches, LaVette delighted the audience with “You Don’t Know Me at All”, dancing and laughing with Lucas center stage, as if to to say that the best things in life sometimes take a long time to discover.
Announcing wryly that it was time for a “senior citizen moment,” LaVette sat on the floor to catch her breath before killing the audience with John Prine’s “Souvenirs”, bringing a wisdom to “I can’t forgive the way they robbed me/ of my sweetheart souvenirs” and bringing out some great accompaniment from band director-keyboardist Alan Hill. In fact, this band was letter perfect throughout the night. The 2003 W.C. Handy Award-nominated “Close as I’ll Get to Heaven” featured a deep groove by drummer Darryl Pierce and bassist Patrick Prouty, deftly allowing LaVette, back on her feet, to drift offstage at the end, singing “so close” like an echo from deep within her soul.
Returning to the stage, LaVette and company raised the intensity a few more notches. The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” became a pledge of devotion to the muse of soul, while the title cut to the superb “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” brought the funk in a way that would have made George Clinton exclaim, “Out of sight!”
Closing out the night, LaVette delivered an a cappella rendition of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” transforming it into Southern gospel of the highest order. The audience was rapt – it was like hearing a message from another world. Raising her arms at the closing note, a visibly moved LaVette placed her microphone on the stage and left the
“That’s the best,” exclaimed jazz legend Les McCann as he received an exuberant greeting from the audience. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, McCann played his Yamaha keyboard with tremendous vigor and joy, opening the show at The Egg on Saturday.
Joined by a superb band featuring saxophone star Javon Jackson, McCann opened with “Ignonimy,” an ironic title for a song given the righteous blues riffing and swinging drums. “Drive” was nod to the jump blues of the 1950s, and offered guitarist David Gilmore a chance to play boisterous solo opposite Jackson’s yakety sax choruses. Famous for his collaborations with Eddie Harris, McCann asked the crowd if they knew what “cold duck” was before launching into “Cold Duck Time,” a funky piece of acid jazz with superb drums by McClenty Hunter bringing a smile to the maestro as he played tasty fills. With a warm tone reminisicent of Dexter Gordon, Jackson took the spotlight for his own compositon “In the Sticks,” a simmering blues that allowed generous solo space for all.
McCann, moved by the crowd, shifted the focus to the spiritual. Three band mates left the stage to McCann and Jackson, who played a sublime, spare rendition of “Amazing Grace” with a melody most have never heard; McCann’s vocals conveyed the thanks of someone who has seen hard times but lived to see the best is yet to come, and Jackson played with beautiful understatement.
Predictably but animatedly, the combo reconfigured for McCann’s signature song (and hit), “Compared to What,” engaging the audience to join in on the chorus. Jackson’s sax sparred with bassist Gregg Jones’ soulful groove, Hunter and Gilmore dazzled with their interplay, and McCann smiled from behind the keyboard, exhorting his musicians to play their hearts out. When the song concluded, the crowd rose to its feet and paid tribute to a short but brilliant set.
Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk
J Hunter’s review at Nippertown