By Steve Crawford at Rock NYC
It’s hard not to root for Bettye LaVette. By this time, her back story is well known. After over four decades of living on the fringes of the music industry, she has received both critical acclaim and two Grammy nominations. Her 2008 performance of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the Kennedy Center Honors seems to become more legendary with each passing year. She is currently on her “50th Anniversary Tour,” celebrating her overnight sensation status.
Front, center, and filling each crevice of the venue of a LaVette performance is her remarkable voice. LaVette sings with extraordinary intensity – bracing her body, grimacing, quivering, wringing gut wrenching emotion out of every note. It’s a sight to behold and hear. I can only compare her to rock icons like Tina Turner and Janis Joplin, but perhaps with more discipline and depth. However, an individual song is different than a concert and as the night went on her strength became her weakness. There’s an exhaustive quality about performing each piece with such tremor shaking force. It’s like being hit by serial tidal waves with no time to recuperate. On a number like Joe Simon’s “Your Time to Cry,” it feels like the material is being sledge hammered.
Additionally, one would think that a world class singer would have a world class band. Definitely not the case. The backup vocals (by her bass player and lead guitarist) were colorless throughout the night, but particular off tune during her snail paced version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” LaVette did a phenomenal gospel style reading of the George Jones hit “Choices,” that was significantly marred by an obtrusive percussion technique. I was relieved that the band didn’t try “Love Reign O’er Me.” I don’t think they could have pulled it off.
However, performers don’t last five decades without learning how to structure a show and entertain an audience (in LaVette’s case this included a series of humorous asides that are probably repeated nightly). The evening kicked off with a fine cover of The Beatles’ “The Word” and the last song of the regular set was a terrific version of Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream.” After that number, the band left the stage and LaVette concluded the evening with a simply astonishing a capella “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” She seemed to be the physical embodiment of strength and endurance and passion. LaVette was genuinely moved as she basked in the applause of an extended standing ovation. The audience loved her.
Really, it’s hard not to root for Betty LaVette.
Grade – B
Take Me As I Am
I’m Not the One
Everything is Broken
Your Time to Cry
Yesterday is Here
The More I Search, The More I Die
Close As I’ll Get to Heaven
Sleep to Dream
I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got
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