Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed

LaVette revitalizes and shape shifts a dozen Dylan tunes into her own soulful reflection. 

Bettye LaVette
Things Have Changed
(Verve)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Take one of the world’s foremost soul interpreters, turn her loose on the songbook from roots music’s most respected singer-songwriter, bring in a veteran and sympathetic boardman who entices some of his celebrated musician friends to guest, and hang on — as this perfect storm yields a riveting meeting of the minds.

But Bettye LaVette doesn’t just saunter through Bob Dylan’s better known material; rather, she and drummer/producer Steve Jordan dig deep into Zimmerman’s catalog to excavate and reinterpret seldom anthologized gems spanning 1964 through 2006. And when she does tackle established Dylan fare like “It Ain’t Me Babe” or “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” she and Jordan take risks by rearranging them in ways so musically unlike their initial recordings, even long-time Dylan fans won’t recognize the songs until the lyrics kick in. The idea of covering his tunes almost borders on cliché at this late stage, yet LaVette and Jordan twist the model in so many unusual and interesting directions, the results sound fresh and inspired.

The relatively stripped-down backing includes such A-team names as bassist Pino Palladino (The Who), Leon Pendarvis (Luther Vandross) on keyboards, and guitarist Larry Campbell (Levon Helm), all established journeymen. Add Jordan buddy Keith Richards to lay his licks over a few selections, including a bluesy “Political World” injected with Neville Brothers funk, along with Trombone Shorty who, with fellow New Orleans-resident Ivan Neville, brings the seldom covered “What Was it You Wanted” (from1989’s Oh Mercy) into Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On territory with a stunning, revelatory performance.

Only dedicated Dylan followers will recognize obscurities like “Emotionally Yours” and “Seeing the Real You at Last” (both tucked away on 1985’s Empire Burlesque), “Ain’t Talkin’” (that closed out 2006’s Modern Times), the lovely ballad “Mama, You Been on My Mind” and the terrific title track, which first saw the light on the soundtrack to Wonder Boys. Everyone else will marvel at LaVette not only uncovering these often hidden jewels, but diving into them with her powerful, clearly enunciated and distinctive soulful rasp. She grabs onto “Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others)” from Dylan’s somewhat maligned Slow Train Coming, wrestling it into a stunning muscular rocker far different and more intense than the original’s subtle jazz/blues. Gregg Allman tackled “Going Going Gone” on his final album from 2016 and LaVette now revisits it to close out this set in mesmerizing, ruminative form. 

These dozen performances will make listeners reassess songs some already know. But more likely they’ll be stunned at how LaVette revitalizes and shape shifts them into her own soulful reflection. Dylan’s compositions have effectively been converted into Bettye LaVette songs, a transformation you can’t help but believe even Bob will appreciate.