in performance: bettye lavette

bettye lavette.

bettye lavette.

Throughout her extraordinary 90 minute concert last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts, soul music empress Bettye LaVette regularly referenced two numbers. The first was 63, which reflects her age. The other was 46, which corresponds to the number of years she has been singing professionally, most of which have been to shamefully few ears.

Both numbers, however, were worn like badges of honor during the performance – testaments, really, to a sound that has endured through a generation of obscurity to become a voice full of rampant joy, drama and, of course, soul.

As a singer, LaVette’s voice often sailed into wondrous tailspins. In its quieter, torchier moments, as in a long lost 1971 Elton John tune called Talking Old Soldiers, it reached a plateau full of longing and desperation that seemed to glide in mid air before it cracked – not through technical deficiencies but through purposeful pacing – into shards of raw and revealing emotion. Add in the tune’s storyline of age and loneliness and you had some serious tear-swelling music on your hands.

On an altogether different plain, LaVette was also as funky as all get out, turning such unlikely tunes as Don Henley’s You Don’t Know Me At All into emancipating groove exercises full of sass and defiance.

Both songs also reflected the wildly varied scope of contemporary fare that make up LaVette’s repertoire today. The show opening rock and soul party piece, The Stealer, was penned back in 1971 by the British rock brigade Free. The equally earthy Joy, of course, came from Americana queen Lucinda Williams. The one-two encore punch of the empowering Sleep to Dream and the a capella affirmation I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got? Those were tunes by Sinead O’Connor and Fiona Apple, respectively.

Only the autobiographical Before the Money Came, co-penned by Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, came from LaVette’s own hand. But, really, all of these songs became her own. Even the Sam Cooke soul classic A Change is Gonna Come, a tune she performed at President Obama’s inauguration even though it equally addressed her own career renaissance, became part of LaVette’s regal, gracious and endearing performance persona.

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