Bettye LaVette, Soul's Deepest Secret, Comes Out

Friday, November 2, 2007

This is schadenfreude: Feeling glad that Detroit soul singer Bettye LaVette hasn't gotten her due, because then it would be much harder to see her in an intimate venue like the Barns at Wolf Trap.

Kicking off a tour for her superb "Scene of the Crime" CD Wednesday night, LaVette begged, ranted, hissed and howled her inimitable way through 16 songs that sounded scraped from the depths of her being. No one who witnessed it could doubt that she deserves to be as famous as Tina Turner or Aretha Franklin. But the vagaries of her long career -- her first single, "My Man -- He's a Loving Man," came out in 1962; she's struggled since -- have given her voice an authority that doesn't come from a life of leisure. Also material for a great new song: "Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)," a highlight of an evening not hurting for highlights.

With that exception, LaVette is an ace interpreter, not a songwriter, but she made every number, from the opening "The Stealer" to her a cappella, no-mike encore of Sin┬┐ad O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," sound like she'd written the lyrics in her own blood. The warmth of her introductions to these songs was surprising, given the dark places she had to visit to sing them.

In the little room, her voice was overpowering, imbued with the wisdom, but none of the wear, of 4 1/2 decades of soul singing -- in her case not a genre so much as a method. By the time her third song, the blistering truth-to-self ballad "Choices," slid into a funky, wah-pedal-driven take of Lucinda Williams's "Joy," this was already one of the best concerts of the year. Then it got better.

-- Chris Klimek


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