One of the many great things about Club Helsinki is its ability get folks to play who have no business playing a club. Such is the case with Bettye Lavette, who, while often categorized as a blues singer, is to my ears one of the best soul singers on the planet.
At once gracious, dignified, and profoundly raw and funky, Lavette and her ace four-piece band opened with a beguiling cover of the Beatles’ “The Word” (I didn’t recognize it until the very end) and then laid out 75 minutes of absolute magic. Looking, moving, and sounding decades younger than her 68 years, she sings as though possessed, as if every cell of her body is feeling and interpreting every word, every nuance of her rich catalog. As she said, “I’m more of a song interpreter than a mellifluous singer.”
And what interpretations . . . “Here’s a song that’s most commonly associated with Chevrolet pickup trucks,” she deadpanned. Halfway through the first verse of “Like a Rock,” Bob Seger’s original faded entirely from memory. LaVette may have well been doing an entirely different, and infinitely richer song. She did back-to-back Neil Young tunes: “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” (!!!) and a hushed, ethereal “Heart of Gold.”
I saw her a year and a half ago and was struck that she sang nothing from her prolific early career. As she explained Saturday ,“I didn’t play those songs for a long time because you all didn’t buy them, so I figured you all didn’t like ‘em. Then I realized I recorded them because I liked ‘em,” and she proceeded to sing her bouncy, saucy 1962 single “My Man He’s a Lovin’ Man.”
She ended the set with her epic version of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me,” turning the blowhard standard into something gut-wrenching and profound. (If you haven’t seen her Kennedy Center Honors performance of this, go to YouTube right now and watch it. You’re welcome). The entire room may as well have been one big goose bump.