Veteran soul singer Bettye LaVette is not known as a songwriter, yet it doesn’t seem quite right to call her a cover artist. On Saturday night at a sold-out Atlas Theater, LaVette staked personal claims on songs by the Beatles, Fiona Apple and even George Jones. She did so partially by bypassing their original melodies, but also by putting these tunes in the context of having had what she called “a successful career six times . . . for four weeks or so.”
It’s true that LaVette was not well known for many of the years since 1962, when she had her first hit — and made her D.C. debut at the Howard Theater. But her comeback hasn’t faltered since 2005’s “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise,” which featured the work of contemporary female songwriters. That album and 2010’s “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook” provided most of the concert’s material. LaVette’s approach was to mostly belt but occasionally coo, slipping around the tunes much the way she slinked playfully about the stage. The more recognizable melodic motifs were ceded to either guitar or backup vocals.
Not counting the one tune her crack four-piece band played before her entrance, LaVette performed only 15 numbers during the 90-minute set. That wasn’t because she elongated the songs; her versions of the Rolling Stones’ “Salt of the Earth” and the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” were shorter than the originals. Rather, the singer spent a lot of time talking. The patter was an integral part of the show, and clearly road-tested: She knew she’d get a laugh when she said the songs on “Interpretations” were written by young Britons “who were high” and had to be revamped for “a 65-year-old black woman who was drunk.”
If the frequent references to strong drink seemed a little old-fashioned, this was essentially a cabaret performance, albeit one backed by a blues-rock band. Dressed in a sleeveless black jumpsuit, and punctuating the music with both physical and verbal humor, the singer seemed ready to settle in for a long run at some swank casino hotel. LaVette’s frustrating career has turned into a fabulous act.