Bettye LaVette - Worthy (2015)

Bettye LaVette
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One thing Detroit born and bred veteran interpreter of song, Bettye LaVette, has always been is worthy. Worthy of far more recognition and commercial success than most of her five decades in the music business has afforded her and her stunning vocal talents -- with almost peerless phrasing, spot-on inflection, and a bone deep blues permeating every standard rock, soul, and country tune she touches. When LaVette steps to the mic—all wiry, tight-bodied 68 years of her—and her fascinating, challenging life pours through that amplifier, every audience member is filled with the creaks, crannies, and deliberate cracks of LaVette’s form of song. She gives old songs new life. In the piercing storytelling blues that has come to personify latter years LaVette, Worthy caps a decade of a woman and artist who finally got her flowers while she’s still here to enjoy them, largely through the efforts of a small label called ANTI and her own resilient sweat and moxie.

One thing Detroit born and bred veteran interpreter of song, Bettye LaVette, has always been is worthy. Worthy of far more recognition and commercial success than most of her five decades in the music business has afforded her and her stunning vocal talents -- with almost peerless phrasing, spot-on inflection, and a bone deep blues permeating every standard rock, soul, and country tune she touches. When LaVette steps to the mic—all wiry, tight-bodied 68 years of her—and her fascinating, challenging life pours through that amplifier, every audience member is filled with the creaks, crannies, and deliberate cracks of LaVette’s form of song. She gives old songs new life. In the piercing storytelling blues that has come to personify latter years LaVette, Worthy caps a decade of a woman and artist who finally got her flowers while she’s still here to enjoy them, largely through the efforts of a small label called ANTI and her own resilient sweat and moxie. Regardless of any one album, single, or even label, some 52 years after her first hit, “My Man, He’s A Loving Man,” LaVette has proven a living legend worthy of international praise.

Worthy is symbolic in many ways. It is, after all, produced by Joe Henry (Solomon Burke, Ani DeFranco, Aimee Mann), the man who ten years ago produced I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, the critically-acclaimed album that brought Bettye LaVette back to mainstream fame (and one hopes a little bit of fortune) after decades without a hit. The covers album named among the “Best of 2005” by critics around the world launched the beginning of a winning formula of LaVette reinterpreting American and British classics, some famous, some obscure, all completely reimagined and made new in LaVette’s capable hands.

Different from the originals of cult classic projects like Do Your Duty or Child of the Seventies, this covers formula threads LaVette’s millennial projects, including: 2007’s Scene of the Crime, 2009’s A Change Is Gonna Come Sessions, 2010’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, and 2012’s Thankful N’ Thoughtful in that the material belongs to someone else, but stripped of all fat through LaVette’s merciless musical vessel, the lyrics of freshly arranged cuts are always newly revealed and inexplicably owned thereafter as a new thing. She’s perhaps most famous for doing so with “Love Reign O’er Me” at the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to The Who, though millions more saw her perform at Barack Obama’s 2009 Presidential Inauguration where she sang Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” with Jon Bon Jovi. These touchstones aside, what she should perhaps be most famous for is penning the most starkly honest celebrity memoir written in an age, the humorous and Who’s Who name-dropping of A Woman Like Me: A Memoir.

Worthy is similar to her memoir in its no-holds barred honesty. If grittier, more bluesy and age conscious in song selection (lots of material reflective of a mature point-of-view, often looking back with various emotions, particularly regret), Worthy maintains LaVette’s formula of unobvious material. This project catalogs eleven songs composed by writers such as Bob Dylan, Joe Henry, Mickey Newbury, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Mary Gauthier, among others in styles from rock to country to blues. Collectively these songs serves as the other very sound anniversary bookend for the celebrated I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, but it also in some ways ignores the artistic growth and dare I say musical variance LaVette experienced with producers like Craig Street or on projects like her #1 Billboard Blues Album, the bestselling Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. Preferring instead to recapture the lightening in the bottle of that seminal Joe Henry project, Worthy is indisputably a fine work, it just feels like one heard from LaVette before.

On cuts like Chris Youlden’s sage “When I Was A Young Girl” with its dark groove and electric guitar solos and JH Brown Jr.’s emotionally spent, near seven-minute opus, the bruising “Just Between You and Me and The Wall, You’re A Fool,” you’re nonetheless reminded that LaVette on cruise control is still better than 90% of what else is out there in terms of interpretive abilities and selling a truthful story. The unvarnished title track and Linwood Detweiler’s reflective “Undamned,” like “Old” on LaVette’s Thankful N’ Thoughtful, are gutsy knockouts and feel less like songs and more like priest confessionals on which you’re ease-dropping.

In the win column, LaVette and Henry pick up the jazz funk on Dylan’s “Unbelievable,” making the original almost unrecognizable as this one positively thumps with life. Drummer Jay Bellerose, guitarist Doyle Bramall II, bassist Chris Bruce, and keyboardist/organist Patrick Warren all make sure LaVette is expertly supported and help to paint a series of indigo, often world-weary portraits lush in emotionalism, like Newbury’s melancholic “Bless Us All” and occasional drive as with The Rolling Stone’s “Complicated” and Joseph Lee Henry’s “Stop.”

Cleanly engineered and produced with cohesion in mind (perhaps overly so, lending to too much similarity in overall feel), the songs performed on Worthy may come from various eras, but this album belongs to no particular time and place. It’s kind of eternal and enduring, much like the tough Detroit lady sitting squarely in the driver’s seat, her bouquet of flowers finally in tow. Recommended. 

By L. Michael Gipson

 
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