I’d been wanting to see Bettye LaVette in concert ever since I happened to catch the broadcast of her concert on Austin City Limits back in 2008. She blew me away, especially the performances of the song “Choices‘” by Billy Yates and George Curtis, and made famous by George Jones, and “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)” which she co-wrote with Patterson Hood. The two songs are drastically different in style and mood. The first is regretful, and one of the best-known country songs ever recorded, and the second is a triumphant, soulful, R&B original that tells the story of her own career. Yet she made them both completely her own!
That all to short Austin City Limits concert was broadcast in 2008, but every time she she played near where I was living, I was traveling myself, and unable to go. So I waited, spending the time spending the time listening to everything she’s ever released that I could get my hands on. After six years of listening, I felt like an old fan, but in fact 6 years is nothing when you consider how long Bettye LaVette has been making music. She released her first single in the Fall of 1962, 3 years before I was born! She had a fascinating career, working steadily for 50 years.
Yet the big commercial success of her peers from the Motor City eluded her for decades, largely because of an uncompromising attitude toward her music. Only in 2012 did she really achieve the success she so richly deserved, some media proclaiming her an “overnight sensation.” But she’d done a lot of work to get there, starting with the recording of “A Woman Like Me” in 2003. In 2005 she signed with ANTI- records and released critically acclaimed albums in 2005 and 2007. 2008 was a break out year for her. Her , Her performance of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the Kennedy Center Honors was the kind of performance that steals a song, and is a must see, and you can at the bottom of this post! She also sang “Change is Gonna Come” with Jon Bon Jovi at President Obama’s inauguration.
You can read much more about her career on her web site or in her fascinating biography, A Woman Like Me. The story it told in broad strokes in the remarkable song, “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)” a performance of which is also included below the concert gallery.
So when I heard she would be playing here in town and on a day that I could be at, I immediately contacted some friends, told them they had to see the show, and got tickets. This winter had been miserable, work overwhelming, time flew by, and suddenly February 4 was here. I didn’t even realize it! I was kind of tired, it was cold, and I sort of regretted getting tickets!
It happens a lot to me with live shows, and in the end I’m always glad I went. In fact, it would have been worth braving the elements just for the food and opening act Jesse Dee. Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant and Supper Club has good food and good beer at reasonable prices. I’m not a huge fan of places that serve food while there’s music on stage, but Johnny D’s handles it well, with minimal disruption. Most of the food service is over before the music starts.
I’d seen Jesse Dee play at the Life is Good Festival and thought he was good, but I’d only caught the tail end of his set, so I was eager to hear more. The tousle-haired, sharply dressed, musician who hails from right here in Boston claims to be influenced mostly by R&B and Soul artists, a claim supported by his music. He also made his admiration for Bettye LaVette known, and in that sense genuinely served as a “warm up” act. He’s got presence and a suitable voice for the style. He also made real efforts to engage the audience and was somewhat successful, no small accomplishment when they’re in the venue for a legendary artist like LaVette, eating dinner, and your the unbilled opening act. I was really glad to have caught his whole set and will do so again, too.
Needless to say, though, it was Bettye LaVette’s night! The band started the song and she came out on stage singing. She quickly won over the local crowd with very specific stories of singing in Boston bars and clubs, that have come and gone with time. She’s nearly 70, yet her voice was flawless and she was full of energy moving around the stage on heels so high and pointed there was a little worry they might get caught in a hole in the carpet on stage. She told stories, made jokes and even conversed with the people in the crowd. It’s hard to tell whether it is she who keeps her band on her toes or the other way around, but they dynamic works. brilliantly
Bettye LaVette is one of the best song interpreters there is. She takes every song she does, decides on a mood and perspective, and communicates as so few others can. She’s kind of the Meryl Streep of song, and anyone who knows how I feel about Meryl Streep can tell you that’s just about the highest praise I can give an artist. To see her perform in such a small venue, from so close to the stage, was… Well, indescribable!
If Bettye LaVette comes to your town, do yourself a favor and get yourself out of the house, no matter what the weather or how bad your day. I’m so glad I did!
Enjoy the images of from the evening.