Sharon Jones may be the “overnight sensation” du jour, but Bettye LaVette has a 10-year head start on the queen of the Dap-Kings. The last time LaVette came through these parts, the 65-year old Michigan native was part of a package show with Maria Muldaur and “Long, Tall” Marcia Ball. While that evening was truly splendiferous, I really wanted to hear more of LaVette when it was all over, so having her return in a headliner role was a hot pre-Thanksgiving meal.
Backed up by a stripped-out, horn-free quartet, LaVette was offstage when she started singing a searing rendition of Lennon & McCartney’s “The Word.” But she strode out front in a hurry, dressed strictly for business – black heels, black pants, black sleeveless top and packing a grit-coated voice that makes Tina Turner sound like Buffy Sainte-Marie. AARP needs to video LaVette dancing onstage just to show seniors what is possible, because Miss Bettye was rocking right from the jump, and so were the 400-or-so people who came to drink in the energy.
While LaVette has won a W.C. Handy award and been nominated for a couple of Grammys, she’s never had the commercial success Jones is currently reaping, and LaVette’s up front about the bitterness she carries. Her first album was recorded in 1972 but stayed unreleased until the mid-’80s, and her latest disc “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook” is made up of music that (in her words) “pushed black artists almost completely off the radio. The Supremes barely squeaked through!” That said, she plumbed the depths of Pete Townshend’s “Love, Reign O’er Me” and George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity”, coming up with gold nuggets completely undiscovered in the original recordings. She also knocked “Souvenirs” out of the park, populating the song’s protagonist as she put every ounce of pain she knows into John Prine’s mournful lyrics.
Of all the work LaVette covered in her 75-minute set, the most powerful came from “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise,” a disc of songs written entirely by women. She prefaced her glowing take on “Joy” by describing Lucinda Williams as “the only woman who can out-drink me”, and she held the Hart Theatre in complete silence with her a cappella version of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” As special a moment as that was, she was an unstoppable force when paired with her band. Musical director Alan Hill’s gutbucket keyboards tasted just right on every piece, but he wisely hung back and left the foil duties to burning guitarist Brett Lucas, who made (in LaVette’s own words) “a youthful, joyful noise on my behalf.”
A friend of mine referred to Les McCann as “Mister Five-by-Five”, transposing the nickname of one of Count Basie’s celebrated vocalists onto the celebrated soul-jazz pianist, but it’s no joke. The 75-year old McCann came onstage in a wheelchair, and it was obvious that his knees can no longer support his mammoth girth. But while McCann may be breaking down physically, he’s still got the spark that sets off the music on “Swiss Movement,” the 1969 album that was featured throughout the hour-long opening set. He spent a lot more time comping than he did soloing, and his voice isn’t quite up to snuff, but the growl and the intention was definitely there as McCann barked out his vocals, and the crowd got to bark back as they happily sang the chorus to McCann’s biggest hit “Compared to What.”
It’s a tall order to expect anyone to come close to the blues-soaked sound of McCann’s longtime partner-in-crime, the late tenorman Eddie Harris. Harris’ attack was an improbable cross between Cannonball Adderley and Junior Walker, which is about as far as you can get from Javon Jackson’s super-cool persona. Jackson’s always had the chops, no doubt, but listening to him play is like watching cold fusion: There’s lots of light and energy, but absolutely no heat. Jackson was much more comfortable on this night in the Hart than he was in the Swyer last spring, playing with Jimmy Cobb’s Kind of Blue Band, and his affection for McCann is both palpable and genuine. But at the end of the day, just couldn’t “make it real.”
Review by J Hunter
Photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Fred Rudofsky’s review at Nippertown
Steve Barnes’ review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Bettye LaVette sang her rags-to-shoulda-been-riches-to-rags-to-riches-for-real story on Saturday at The Egg’s Hart Theater: a triumph of talent and persistence over bitterness. The 60-something soul singer funkified the Beatles’ ‘The Word’ from her ‘Interpretations’ album of British Invasion classics to start, dancing non-stop. She had to towel off before launching ‘Take Me Like I Am,’ one of many defiant self-defining songs, then noted that the Brit-pop songs of her boomer-demo audience’s youth were the nemesis of hers, the end of soul music on radio and her career hopes then. LaVette’s transforming appropriation of those songs was shrewd payback and musical triumph.”