You heard her before you saw her. After a greasy fatback funk by her crack back-up band, that scratchy pained voice permeated the room to the point where patrons at The Musikfest Café in Bethlehem, PA, sat up in their seats, stopped chewing and leaned forward. The entrance was spectacular: Awash in a single spotlight, stuttering, testifyin’, she brought to the stage the kind of majesty one expects from such royalty of soul. Dressed in all black with tight-fitting clothes that accentuated her lean, mean body (not an ounce of fat on this 66-year-old), she prowled the perimeter of the stage in predatory feline manner. The effect was mesmerizing. She was a constant whirling dervish who didn’t so much as vie for your attention but demanded it, took it, and laughed while she did so. All other sensory stimuli became extraneous, mute…the room was her universe, she was the center of it, and you were grateful, astonished at the profundity of her naked passion as you were sucked right into her all-consuming vortex.
Just like how Ray Charles used to strip a previously existing song of its singular essence, turn it inside-out and completely revitalize it into another animal, Bettye took “The Word,” a Beatle song off Rubber Soul (1965), and turned it nasty, sizzling and funk-a-fied like George Clinton, Sly Stone and The Ohio Players all rolled into one. Yet Lennon/McCartney’s melody came through on more of a subconscious level than anything else and therein lies her genius. There’s always going to be a nostalgic component for a song one loved and cherished when one was 14- years-old. Fast-forward 47 years later and that melodic invention becomes part of your heart. Bettye didn’t mess with that. And that was smart. She added and added the kind of musical and emotional layers that made the original now sound like merely a template.
What she did with George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity” should be filmed and sent into outer space for future generations of cosmos dwellers to truly understand the concept of what soul is supposed to be all about. She sang it agonizingly slow, dwelling on each syllable as if her life depended upon it. This approach wouldn’t work as well on a song you didn’t know. But, again, given the song’s propensity to elicit pathos, empathy and nostalgia for George, to hear it stretched, stretched, stretched out like that beyond belief is to become suspended in time, as you lean on each word deeper and deeper until its climactic conclusion.
But it just kept getting better.
When Pete Townshend wrote “Love, Reign O’er Me” for The Who’s 1973 Quadrophenia rock opera, he meant it to be a kind of cataclysmic seismic shift in the terrain. Vocalist Roger Daltrey sang it that way. It was pure drama on an epic scale. The years have done little to diminish its grand scope. Bettye’s version takes the song’s inherent soul value and multiplies it to the point where one could not resist the magnetic waves emanating from the stage. I found myself being pulled out of my seat, an inexorable force physically sweeping me closer to her. In all my abject powerlessness, I yielded to this preternatural command. Not wanting to draw attention to myself, I crumpled up against the side of the sound man’s barrier and stayed there the rest of the show.
I was in church, thinking this is what it must have been like to get to see the great Otis Redding. As song after song made believers out of a whitebread conservative audience, by the end of the set they were hootin’ and hollerin’ just like me. By the time her anthem—“I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” (off 2005’s brilliant I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise)—rang out bold and true, all barriers had been broken. “I have water for my journey/I have bread and I have wine/No longer will I be hungry/For the bread of life is mine.” As keyboardist/music director Allan Hill, guitarist Brett Lucas, bassist Chuck Bartels and drummer Darryl Pierce kept it up, Bettye brought it down and exited stage left still singing.
One could only stand in satiated joy at such a demonstration. I had no idea. I’ve loved her music from afar. But this is an artist who has to be experienced live to be fully appreciated.
Back in her dressing room after the performance, she was tired, yet seemed pleased, answering my questions with a self-deprecating sense of humor rare for someone who has performed for presidents and carried the torch of this music to yet another generation. “I just never sold any records,” she said point-blank. Her current one, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook (ANTI-), has her working this kind of magic on Traffic, The Animals, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Moody Blues, Eric Clapton, Elton John and others.
The MusikFest Café in Bethlehem, PA, has become my hangout. The drinks are strong, the food is good, the atmosphere is great and the booking policy is right up my alley. I hope to be there again April 6 for The Hector Rosado Salsa Orchestra. Come dance with me.
Bettye LaVette will be performing Tuesdays through Saturdays at The Cafe Carlyle in Manhattan from March 13 through March 31. For more information, go to bettylavette.com.