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8 Jun 2006: Grant Park Chicago
I’ve been going to rock shows for a good 26 years now and listening to music for almost 40. Growing up, my four older brothers and two older sisters gave me a fine education in pop, rock, soul, country, and the blues. It’s true, as a teen, most of what I spun on the hi-fi was punk rock, ska, and new wave, but my brother Bill did instill in me a fascination with the Chicago blues (well, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley’s Chess sessions, at least).
Having lived in Chicago for nine years, one might think the Chicago Blues Festival is one of my regular destinations. In truth, I’ve gone only twice in the whole time I’ve lived here. Frankly, the Blues as a genre have seemed a bit stale in recent years. The last time I remember getting excited by a blues album was in the ‘90s when the nasty, juke-joint Fat Possum blues sound was at its zenith—proudly played by artists like R. L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, and Big Jack Johnson.
Of course, that’s not the reason I haven’t gone. What I’d really love to see at the Chicago Blues Festival is something a bit more eclectic. Why not book some rock bands like the White Stripes, the Dirtbombs, or Eagles of Death Metal, whose sound owes a large thanks to the the blues? What about the desert blues? Tinariwen, Boubacar Traore, Konono No. 1, and Amadou and Mariam would make a blues festival a true delight. Oh to be a festival curator instead of a lowly music scribe.
This year’s line-up did feature two performers, though, that caught my eye. Bettye LaVette and Bobby Blue Bland are both giants. Living legends, they can certainly be filed under the blues, but in truth both singers are far more versatile. LaVette cut her first single—a soulful rhythm and blues croon called “My Man He’s a Loving Man”—as a 16-year-old in 1962 and was immediately compared to other rhythm and blues shouters like Aretha Franklin and Etta James. She had another hit, “Let Me Down Easy” in 1965. The ensuing years were not so kind to LaVette. Though she recorded for the likes of Atlantic and Motown and toured with Clyde McPhatter, Otis Redding, and James Brown, much of her music seemed got lost in the dustbin of music history.
Thanks to the French label Art and Soul, LaVette’s lost record, Child of the ‘70s, was unearthed and finally released in 2000, marking the singer’s return to the world of pop music. Having won a W.C. Handy Blues Award for her 2003 album A Woman Like Me, LaVette is currently on the road promoting her most recent disc, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise—a collection of songs written by women songwriters from Dolly Parton and Sinead O’Connor to Lucinda Williams and Fiona Apple.
Closing out the first day of Chicago’s Blues Festival on a cool June night, LaVette was red hot. By the time I got to the Petrillo Band Shell and navigated the hordes of hippies, frat boys, mullets, and moustaches, LaVette was already at center stage in a tight white outfit, slick pants, and a sleeveless top. She looked every bit a sexy soul singer as she howled out the refrain of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy,” breathing bluesy fire into the track.
LaVette delved deep into down-home blues, raging and roaring as the crowd howled and testified in response. Not far from the Delta, LaVette found a taste of the Muscle Shoals sound in her re-working of Dolly Parton’s “Sparrow”. Backed by a slow, soulful groove, LaVette bent and twisted her voice between a roar and a whisper, singing with sublime ease. Few singers can do in three minutes of belting the blues what LaVette achieves in a single, whispered word.
More than just an incredible voice, LaVette remains also quite the entertainer. She sashayed across the stage, gesticulating passionately with her hands and pouring her whole body into her vocals. She was especially animated as she delivered bluesy soul gems like “Serves Him Right”—a big middle-finger salute to cheating, backsliding boyfriends and husbands. Much more Stax than Chess, LaVette’s style is a soulful serenade rather than a juke-joint shout.
Her skills as jazz vocalist were brought to bear on “Souvenirs”, a John Prine number that found Bettye quivering and quaking with a bluesy moan over a faintly flickering piano and an organ reminiscent of Procul Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale”. It was a majestically disquieting performance.
Introducing the next number, LaVette proclaimed, “I’d like to sing you all the first song I ever recorded. It was 1962 and I was just 16. Back then I had no idea what I was talking about, but I do now. It’s called ‘My Man He’s a Loving Man.’” LaVette proceeded to turn the Blues Festival into an intimate club show, one dripping with the sexy swagger of her soul classic.
As expected, “Let Me Down Easy”—a song LaVette has declared to be her “mantra for the past 40 years”—proved to be a crowd favorite. The church organ, soulful backbeat, and almost symphonic sound matched LaVette’s husky vocal pleas perfectly. Her body bowed and bent as she ground deep to the stage, howling, moaning, and exalting with all her might.
LaVette’s performance brought a much-needed vitality to the Chicago Blues Festival and even convinced me that blues might have more to offer than the same old, same old. If only there had been more singers and entertainers like Bettye LaVette working the scene, maybe I wouldn’t have stayed away so long.
Bettye Lavette - Let Me Down Easy