The bittersweet triumph of Bettye LaVette is writ large and heard larger in every note she sings. Since watching her career revived from about as quintessentially obscure toiling as it gets—and seeing the legend of that toiling become the bull’s eye of every enterprising music writer with even a passing yen for soul and R&B—she’s hit hard upon her return, which is now four years and two essential albums (2005’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise and 2007’s Grammy-nominated The Scene of the Crime) deep.
The bittersweetness isn’t so much in the long-overdue redemption for said “crime”: The shelving of her funk and R&B breakout Child of the Seventies by Atlantic Records in 1972 and the subsequent nearly three decades of performing for rent, near-misses, and what had to be a mountain of frustration. No, it’s that no matter how far she climbs now, she’ll always be known first for the comeback, and second for the talents that should never have necessitated one in the first place. Every expansive Bettye LaVette article includes a recounting of her revival, the drama of her career arc more pronounced than the extraordinary, mountain-moving way she sings and the throes of her saddest and most cathartic material.
Watching LaVette burn bright and cut deep in an hour and a half set at the 9:30 Club, I felt like I understood that bittersweetness at a more acute level than anything I’d read about her before and any of the times I’d seen her in the past. She’s worked hard to make her comeback stick; still, it was a half-packed club (though, granted, a Monday night). She brought the house down at the Kennedy Center Honors in December with the Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me” and performed at the Obama inauguration; still, a half-packed club.
But watching her bust out with the opening “The Stealer”—from Child of the Seventies—I also felt relieved, because I felt like I cared about these things more than she did at that moment. What her body language and mood suggested was that she was glad to be there, that she knew it wasn’t a sold out house and so what, that she knows her spotlight has returned and she earned it long ago, and that she’s going to make the best of her moment, no matter what that looks like. If it’s revival first, talent second, fine. Her mesmerizing “Choices” is a draining experience all the same; her funkified take on Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” is potent regardless. Her sassy smile is stupefying; her sex appeal effortless. That we overanalyze Bettye LaVette is our problem, not hers—someone with a career like LaVette’s must learn to move past frippery, and let her instincts lead her and her pragmatism prevail even when the sun’s shining on her career again.
While we make up our mind about how to describe what she’s doing, she’ll be there to sell chestnuts like Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces” and her marvelous, autobiographical “Before the Money Came” (which closed a two-song encore) her way. Which is to say, the only way she knows how. Which is to say, up there with the most expressive singers in soul and R&B history. Which is to say, a master class in hanging drama off the end of every lyric, and loading those lyrics with punch and resonance.
LaVette was tested at the 9:30 Club; at one point in the set, right after “He Made a Woman Out of Me”, she sat down on the stage and apologized to the audience for a series of missed notes and botched phrases. She had conferred with her band a few minutes earlier and it appeared from the crowd she was a little too exhausted to both dance and sing during the more up-tempo songs. That meant a shift toward some of her most moving ballads—among them “The High Road”, John Prine’s “Souvenirs”, “Your Turn to Cry”, and the aforementioned Willie tune—and delivered them seated, in what a probably rattled but overtly dignified and charmingly self-deprecating LaVette called a “senior citizen stance.”
The shift did stall the show’s momentum; usually, LaVette’s set is a more varied mix of ballads, funk, and R&B, instead of the front-end movers and back-end slow burning the 9:30 Club show became. But Bettye LaVette once again proved herself impervious. She arrived at one of her usual showstoppers, Elton John’s “Talkin’ Old Soldiers”, took a deep breath, and smoked it as she always does, curving that flinty rasp around every turn of phrase, and wringing every drop of emotion out of the space that exists between the emotive singing of words and dragging out syllables too long to preserve whatever punch they had.
That is, LaVette invests more of herself in single lyrics than most other singers do in entire songs. She grinds out words as if the maximum amount of drama they can provide is a fleeting thing, meant to be held on to and massaged for an amount of time only an instinctive and natural feel for phrasing says is exactly long enough. Is this what we hope for when we describe great ballads as “slow burns”? LaVette’s a controlled inferno on songs like these.
I hope her best work is ahead of her, and I remain cowed by her volcanic singing talents. I know that she’d thank me for the opinion, but honey, she knows that already.