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R&B vet LaVette shows off her superlative interpretive skills at Dakota

Posted by: Jon Bream under Music Updated: August 9, 2011 - 2:20 AM

Every time I see Bettye LaVette perform at the Dakota Jazz Club I have to search for new superlatives.

Monday’s concert made a compelling case for LaVette as one of the greatest interpretive singers of our time.

Her repertoire was different from past shows at the Dakota, where she has been a regular visitor since 2004. Not the usual "I’m promoting my latest album" routine. It was more akin to a career retrospective, with glimpses of some of the things LaVette has recorded over the past 49 years — some ancient and obscure numbers, a few familiar ones and lots of covers.The show was unforgettably superlative.

The approach, the singer said, is the seeds of a one-woman show that she hopes to take a theatrical stage someday. There were a few songs I’ve never heard hear sing at the Dakota before, including the Beatles’ "Blackbird" and Bruce Springsteen’s "Streets of Philadelphia."

Like Springsteen, LaVette always pours her entire body and soul into each song. With only one 95-minute performance (instead of the old two 70-minute sets), the 65-year-old veteran sat on a stool for a few numbers to preserve her strength.

As always, there were a couple of goose-bump-inducing show stoppers. This time, it was "Damn Your Eyes," which LaVette recorded years ago but stopped performing because Etta James put out a more famous version at about the same time. LaVette reclaimed it Monday, delivering this smoldering blues like a whispered roar. Near song’s end, she kept repeating "Damn" as her bassist and guitarist answered her. She totally inhabited this song, as is her approach to every tune.

Also special: "Blackbird," reimagined as a slice of slow Southern soul; "Streets of Philadelphia," sort of a spoken word piece set to piano, as harrowing as Springsteen’s synthesizer-framed original; the pretty, prayerful "Love, Reign O’er Me" (the Who) and her closing, a capella gospelly hymn "I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got" (Sinead O’Connor).

The covers-heavy set also included Neil Young’s "Heart of Gold," Ringo Starr’s "It Don’t Come Easy" (recast as "It ain’t comin’ easy"), Traffic’s "No Time To Live" and Thelonious Monk’s "Round Midnight," almost a straight-ahead jazz piece.

LaVette performs again Tuesday and Wednesday at the Dakota.

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