Friday, 18 June 2010
BETTYE LAVETTE at the MELTDOWN FESTIVAL, SOUTHBANK PURCELL ROOMS
As an encore Bettye LaVette is singing – no, not singing, singing doesn’t do it justice, she is wringing every last drop of soul out of - “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got”. A cappella. Her voice has the whole room spellbound . It is something to behold. A moment to enjoy, savour and remember. And it’s just one of a number of similar moments in this performance by a lady who in a stuttering career stretching back to her first single in 1962 has only since 2005’s I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise got the credit she richly deserves.
Her three albums in the last five years have been lavished with critical acclaim (Grammy nominations), she’s performed for Presidents, and has established herself as a contemporary artist rather than simply a soul survivor on the revival circuit. I last saw her twenty years ago at a northern soul weekender near Great Yarmouth. I can remember the wind rattling the shabby caravan site. I can remember falling over on the gravel outside and dancing with bleeding hands. I can remember some excitement that Bettye was on site and, I think, that there were some drawings of Bettye available to buy for her to sign. To my shame I can’t remember a thing about her performance but I guess she popped up to knock out northern soul staples including “I Feel Good All Over”, “Let Me Down Easy” and maybe “Witchcraft In The Air”.
Back to now and she opens with “The Word”. There’s no denying she is great but she isn’t helped by her band: straight out of Rock School, bass tucked between chin and belly and that jutting head and pursed lips combo that fat beardy session bass players seem to specialize in, plus the capped, grimacing guitarist doing his squinty eyed nonsense. LaVette has the lungs to top them but it doesn’t do her proper justice. It takes a striped away version of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity” to do that and what an incredible tearjerker it is.
That more or less set the pattern. A couple of medium paced songs followed by a slow one and the slow ones, putting Bettye centre stage, trump the funkier, rockier ones. There’s a questionable song selection on her latest album Interpretations: The British Rock Songboook which she is promoting. She transforms “I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” but “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” has never done anything for me and even Bettye cannot freshen a turd as stinky as “Nights In White Satin”. Yet give her a decent song like The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me”, a suitably sympathetic arrangement, and let her cracked, street fighting rasp penetrate deep into your very soul. When she does, the drama and the raw emotions are draining to watch. It seems like a lost art these days but it’s one that after 48 years LaVette has perfected with stunning results.
As much as the torch burners are the indisputable highlights the rockier workouts are livened by Bettye’s graft: working the stage, shaking and writhing her tiny toned frame atop four inch heels like a more dignified Tina Turner. And there are the little things like always saying “we thank you” instead of “I thank you”; of remembering people like Ady Croasdell who’ve helped support her through the tough times; thanking the sound and light technicians – when did you last hear that?; and there’s a moment when she knocks a plastic cup off a chair at the side of the stage with a tiny drop of water in it, instead of leaving it she stoops to pick it up and carefully puts it back on the chair. Somehow that sort of thing impresses me.
The opening bars of her 1965 classic “Let Me Down Easy” gets a massive roar and a massive rendition in return. When too many older artists are happy to saunter along and trade off former glories it’s a real pleasure to watch a performer put her whole being into a show like this. And guess what? She played another show an hour later. Ask me in twenty years if I remember this, and I swear I will.