Soul legend Bettye LaVette threw a great party for a warm, appreciative, and very vocal audience at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago’s Ravenwood neighborhood. Backed by a crack band which included a drummer, guitarist, bass player, and a musical director in charge of the keyboards, LaVette breezed through a tight show that included some bluesy foot-stompers, a pop ballad, a country tune and some fiery R&B numbers. All of the songs were delivered with LaVette’s inimitable, whiskey-soured growl; her voice isn’t pretty – not in a silky Diana Ross way – but there’s an awesome beauty in her weathered rasp. And not only is LaVette a fantastic singer, but she’s a consummate showwoman, engaging her audience and entertaining the crowd with brief patter in between the songs. Despite the evening’s brevity, emotions run from euphoria to bottomless grief. And even though the set and musical direction were both austere (a reflection of the country’s economic situation, perhaps?), the focused, back-to-basics approach to performing was duly appreciated by the audience.
The ideal setting of the venue lend itself to an intimacy which supported some of the emotions of the songs – particularly the sadder numbers. As raucous and hell-raising as she can be, LaVette shines best when she’s bruised and sad. In a notably poignant moment, LaVette offered a tearful tribute to recently departed country legend, George Jones with a raw, emotional rendition of his “Choices,” which she recorded for her 2007 set The Scene of the Crime. She also mused about the endless melancholy of Nashville songwriters, particularly women songwriters, before launching into a lovely “The More I Search (The More I Die)” from her latest album Thankful n’ Thoughtful.
In fact, much of the set was devoted to songs from her new record, and the songs all played to the singer’s strengths: namely her no-bull attitude. “Everything Broken” is a funky, rumbling number that allowed for LaVette to vamp and strut around the small stage. Like Tina Turner, LaVette is an energetic, age-defying performer, shimmying and bump-and-grinding to the up-tempo numbers. Sexy without being vulgar, sensual without being salacious, LaVette is a dynamic presence on stage, easily commanding it, to the approving whistles, catcalls and shouts from the audience members.
She also referenced her Detroit roots and Motown before singing her classic R&B hit “My Man—He’s a Lovin’ Man” after professing her life-long desire to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, but realizing that she may have been just too much for 1960s television audiences (and her off-the-cuff, blink and you’ll miss it cover of the Supremes “Stop! In the Name of Love” was hilarious).
The near-perfect show slowed down for a brief moment when she sang a pretty pop ballad from her sole Motown album. The song was well performed, but was too traditional and MOR, and didn’t play to her strengths, being such a distinct vocalist. Despite this minor lull, the song choices were expert – it would’ve been nice to hear her stately cover of Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” or her damaged version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” but it’s understandable that she wanted to highlight Thankful n’ Thoughtful (copies were available for sale after the show).
After an encore and an enthusiastic ovation, LaVette was left alone on stage to perform a blistering and tear-stained cover of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” – even surpassing the superb original with a raw-voiced, a cappella performance that left the people in the audience on their feet and emotionally-drained. LaVette’s great on vinyl, but she’s a must-see live performer.