Bettye LaVette/ Star Tribune file photo by Kyndell Harkness
The superlatives applied to R&B star Bettye LaVette in the Star Tribune and in this Artcetera blog are becoming redundant.
She continues to be that terrific. But the superlatives at Monday’s LaVette performance at the Dakota go to the audience: they were the most consistently enthusiastic and receptive crowd at one of her many shows here. They whooped and hollered after every selection, and a few of performances even drew whistles. Pretty special for a Monday night.
But LaVette turns every gig into a Saturday night kind of performance, and the Minneapolis audience responded accordingly Monday.
The Detroit veteran, who seemed in a very good mood, tried to put her career in perspective. She said she’s just completed the successful 9-year Who the Hell Is She Tour, which pretty much started at the Dakota in 2004. Now she’s kicking off her 50th Anniversary Tour. Hence, the 67-year-old wanted to play material from, as she put, all four of her careers.
LaVette reached back to her teen days in Detroit (“My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man”), her Motown days (when she didn’t achieve her dream of performing on “American Bandstand” like the rest of her friends and neighbors in Detroit) and then sampled tunes from each of her five comeback albums in this century.
The highlights of her 85-minute presentation were her covers of well-known rock songs by Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, the Moody Blues and Willie Nelson. One of America’s preeminent song interpreters, LaVette made you reexamine Young’s “Heart of Gold,” stripping it of his sweetness and just honing in on the desire.
As her band found a Southern groove on Williams’ “Joy,” LaVette oozed anxiety and desperation. With her un-majestic reading, she even got me to rethink the Moodys’ “Nights in White Satin,” a song I’ve never particularly liked. And she reworded Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” as “Everybody Knows This Ain’t Nowhere,” which underscored the emptiness she was singing about.
But the showstopper was Willie's “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces,” with the lithe and limber LaVette sitting cross-legged on the stage, starting a cappella, then with just hints of country-fied guitar moans and a bit of gospel piano vamping, removing all the filigree and just cutting to the raw emotion. She’s usually a very physical singer but this time the listener’s body could just feel the pain as LaVette sang from the bottom of her heart. She practically teared up as she uttered a cappella those final words “you and your heart.”
Whew! No one can purge pain like Bettye LaVette.
Opening was Minneapolis veteran Maurice Jacox, who has developed into a skillful R&B stylist but, when’s an opening act, he’d be more effective with less talking. Highlight: Lamont Dozier’s “How Sweet It Is” turned into an elegant piano ballad that suggested Laura Nyro.
LaVette and Jacox will perform again at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Dakota.