Show Review: Bettye LaVette at Yoshi’s Oakland, 7/21/2011

by Jason LeRoy on July 23, 2011

Bettye LaVette performing earlier this month. Photo by Nancy Rae Gilliland.

Bettye LaVette, the 65-year-old soul phenom who toiled in relative obscurity for over 40 years before exploding onto the buzz meters with her 2005 collection of female singer/songwriter covers, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, played to a overflowing, standing-room-only crowd at Yoshi’s in Oakland on Thursday evening. LaVette has a special attachment to the Bay Area, as her self-proclaimed “return from the crypt” was largely triggered when she was signed to the SF-based Rosebud Agency. And that gratitude was lovingly incorporated into her stunning 90-minute set of one explosive show-stopper after another.

This was my first time seeing LaVette in concert, and I thought I knew what to expect: a dark, dramatically torchy affair, with Ms. LaVette clutching a mic stand while pummeling one excruciatingly heartbreaking soul elegy after another. So, imagine my surprise when LaVette’s band cued up her strutting rendition of The Beatles’ “The Word” (from her most recent album, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook) and she literally danced onto the stage, looking absolutely sensational in a sexy red jumpsuit, mic in hand, stand nowhere in sight.

Maybe I’ve just watched her Kennedy Center Honors performance of “Love Reign O’er Me” too many times, but this was a surprise to me. And a welcome surprise! It was delightful watching her work that stage, vivaciously parading back and forth, shooting sassy looks and emphatic gestures at those lucky enough to be seated directly in front of her. Despite being a recent “overnight success” (a sarcastic phrase she repeatedly used when talking about her professional journey), she has the consummate-performer ethic of the generation that spawned her.

LaVette pulled her song selections primarily from the albums she’s released since A Woman Like Me (2003), which she credits as the album which first sparked her journey “out of the crypt.” From that album, she pulled the scorned-woman anthem “Serves Him Right,” as well as the lament “Close As I’ll Get To Heaven,” which she identified as the song to which she relates the most. From I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, she performed her revelatory covers of Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream,” Lucinda Williams’ “Joy,” and her breathtaking a capella rendition of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” which was the final song of the evening. Sadly, she did not include her astonishing take on “How Am I Different” by Aimee Mann.

The Grammy-nominated The Scene of the Crime (2007) was represented by one of the evening’s most powerful moments, LaVette’s ravaged and wrenching rendition of the George Jones classic “Choices.” I almost lost it during that one. And just when I thought I couldn’t be any weepier, LaVette sat down on the stage and mourned her way through Steve Winwood’s “No Time to Live.” It was that really intense kind of sad where you can’t even cry, you just stare numbly out of shell-shocked eyes. LaVette’s impossibly powerful, astoundingly anguished voice is matched by her physicality; her body seems to absorb and reflect every last ounce of emotional impact she channels. Her face frequently contorts into a mask of utter pain and sorrow, and it’s not uncommon to see her discreetly dab her eyes with a towel while sipping water between songs. One can’t help but be reminded of Frank Sinatra’s legendary observation about Judy Garland: “Everytime she sings, she dies a little, that’s how much she gives.”

“No Time to Live” is one of the selections LaVette chose from Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. “We had to rearrange some of the songs, which were written by 20-year-old men in England who were high, to be sung by a 65-year-old woman who is drunk,” she joked. “But some we didn’t have to change at all!” In addition to “The Word” and “No Time to Live,” she also performed her versions of Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy” and The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” Beyond the album material, LaVette sang a cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” that she released as a single in 1972, as well as her incendiary, jaw-dropping 10-minute version of “Damn Your Eyes,” which she explained she’d taken out of the show for a time out of respect to Etta James, but is bringing back as a tribute to the gravely ill R&B legend.

Simply put, Bettye LaVette is one of the greatest soul singers of all time. To quote The New York Times, she “now rivals Aretha Franklin as her generation’s most vital soul singer. She uses every scrape, shout and break in her raspy voice, with a predator’s sense of timing, to seize the drama of a song.” She brought every last bit of that power to her performance at Yoshi’s. Any opportunity to see her in concert should be seized immediately.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mio July 24, 2011 at 1:59 am

Very good set by Ms. Lavette. The George Jones tune was wonderful and appropriate for Ms. Lavette’s story as well. Her rendition of “Heart of Gold” topped it, I thought. She can simultaneously sing the blues and gospel which is the treatment she gave “Heart of Gold”. She gives her all at every performance I’ve seen. Nice recap of her Yoshi’s show. Thank you.

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Bob Meline July 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm

i was second row center for the early show this evening. bettye is simply amazing. there is not a single ounce of wasted energy or emotion when she performs–every single fiber of her being goes into her songs. “damn your eyes” was worth the price of admission alone.

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