Bettye LaVette Doesn’t Just Sing Songs, She Inhabits Them on ‘Blackbirds’

Bettye LaVette | Blackbirds | (Verve)
4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Usually American Songwriter focuses on artists that write and perform their own material, or contribute it to others. But in Bettye LaVette’s case, neither of those apply.

The soul/jazz/blues singer is pushing six decades as a professional musician (she released her first recording at the age of 16) yet shows no sign of slowing down. And even though she doesn’t compose her tunes, LaVette’s iconic, lived in voice, dynamic arrangements and forceful/taut interpretations bring unique perspectives to everything she touches. LaVette doesn’t just croon songs, she gets inside them, turns them inside out and reveals layers of meaning often even their writers didn’t express as effectively. Her 2018 set of Bob Dylan tunes, some quite obscure, showed how she transforms even unlikely material for an R&B vocalist into something that sounds like, well, a Bettye LaVette track.

For this follow-up, the singer tackles selections (mostly) made popular from other iconic black women artists. The Beatles (almost) title track is the exception, but it fits the disc’s theme of the African American experience in love, loss and civil rights through the decades. Songs associated with Nina Simone (“I Hold No Grudge”), Dinah Washington (“Drinking Again”) and Nancy Wilson (“Save Your Love for Me”) capture the dusky closing time bar/club vibe through stripped down instrumentation from an all-star quartet (including Leon Pendarvis on keys and guitarist Smokey Hormel) enhanced by drummer Steve Jordan’s sympathetic production.

There’s subtle funk running under “Blues for the Weepers” (best known through Della Reese) and a supple jazz/blues vibe applied to “In the Dark” that perfectly frames LaVette’s searing, soul searching vocals. On “Book of Lies” she sings the first 30 seconds a cappella showing that even without backing, her voice is powerful enough to carry anything she holds.

 But it’s her performance of the Billie Holiday standard “Strange Fruit,” a riveting discourse on lynching in any version, where LaVette tears into the heart and skin of an already gripping classic. When she emotes “the scent of magnolias sweet and fresh/then the sudden smell of burning flesh” with her passionate growl, an atmosphere thick with fear, dread and intensity is created.

By the time the Beatles’ “Blackbird” closes the set in a slowed down blues arrangement with a string quartet, most listeners will be wrung out emotionally from these expressive takes on generally seldom heard gems. Bettye LaVette may not have penned any, but she owns them just the same.     

 

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