Like many other R & B vocalists of her era, Detroit’s Bettye LaVette never achieved the kind of stardom her enormous talent deserved. She hit the R & B charts a few times in the 60s and again in the early 80s, but until this decade her career was more often defined by missed opportunities, like the debut album she cut in Muscle Shoals in 1972 that was inexplicably shelved. The tide started turning in 2000, when that album was released as Souvenirs (Art & Soul); the blues-stoked A Woman Like Me (Blues Express) followed in 2003, earning her a W.C. Handy Award for Comeback Blues Album of the Year. She’s lost some flexibility in her upper range, but at an astonishing performance last year at the Shubert Theatre her improved skills as an interpreter more than made up for it. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the new I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti-), on which she transforms an assortment of rock and country tunes by female songwriters. On the opener, Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” LaVette uses the wear in her voice to her advantage, singing a cappella with the gravitas and precision of long experience to assert herself as a battle-scarred survivor. A couplet in “How Am I Different”–“One more question before I pack / When you fuck it up later do I get my money back?”–sounded milquetoasty when Aimee Mann sang it, but LaVette reshapes it into a collar-grabbing demand. Elsewhere she magnifies the desperate fury in Lucinda Williams’s “Joy” and turns Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow” into a harrowing blues dirge thick with contempt for no-good men. Joe Henry’s production is perfect–he avoids the high gloss of modern blues but doesn’t try to sound slavishly retro. See the Meter, page 5, for more on LaVette and Henry. Kelly Hogan opens. Fri 11/18, 9:30 PM, FitzGerald’s, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn, 708-788-2118 or 312-559-1212, $12 in advance, $15 at the door.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.