Last week Bettye LaVette sang at the opulent dinner club, the Hamilton. The Hamilton is located on the same block with some ultra upscale hotels in the nation’s capital, and the stairs leading to the carpeted club are lit up with polka dotted lights. Although a fellow writer and I had both dressed for a night out — I was in heels — we both admitted feeling under dressed once we were seated inside. The food was wonderful: this place has a Zagat rating of 4.0 for the food, and not surprisingly, a 4.5 for the decor.
Bettye LaVette recently signed with the luminous Verve Records for her project Things Have Changed, an interpretation of Bob Dylan songs. [For more on this and other Betty LaVette goings-on, read our interview by clicking any of these bolded words.]
Acclaimed harmonica player Phil Wiggins was the opener with Eleanor Ellis on guitar. He’s a piece of history with his status as a lifetime NEA National Heritage Fellowship award winner. He grew up in the Tacoma Park area of Washington D.C., and has taught harmonica to thousands of students in his harmonica workshops. The crowd was like children gathered at the feet of their favorite uncle regaling them with tales, although not all the tales were funny. There were some, like when he talked about that one cousin, or aunt, that was never satisfied at a family function until she had caused drama and upset everyone, pausing before adding, “and if you don’t think your family has one, then that person is you,” before playing “No Foos No Fun.”
But others were chilling, soul chilling stories that stood as warnings to the idea that America would need to return to a supposedly “former” time of “greatness,” rather than appreciate how far we’ve come to be here now. Like the song that told the story of Nigerian slaves jumping overboard en masse to drown themselves in Dunbar Creek, Georgia when they saw what was in store for them onshore, then soberly laid out the song “Igbo Landing.” And then the story of the kid who couldn’t afford a bike but had access to one to deliver groceries at work. Well, one night he and some friends kept the bike and were goofing around, riding it, when an officer of the law caught them and pistol whipped them, leaving them bloody at the side of the road, launching into a wry “make American great” again song.
After their set, the room was still reverent and hushed, but it wasn’t long before the Emcee introduced “3 -time grammy nominee Bettye LaVette” and the energy in the room was palpable and the crowd was transfixed as Bettye LaVette ascended the stage. She and the band came out with a sonic fury with “Things Have Changed.” LaVette was the picture of grace and class from her criss crossed rhinestone accented sleeves to her silver painted toenails. She sang “It Ain’t Me Babe,” after which she referenced her sunglasses, which, she said, made her feel like Elton John or Blind Lemon Jefferson, and then sang “What Was It You Wanted,” and “Political World.”
In between numbers LaVette made the crowd chuckle as she shared the experience of immersing herself in the words of Bob Dylan’s songs, emphasizing his wordiness and saying things like “A Black Woman can say in 4 verses what it took him 9 to say.” “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight,’ again had the whole room in chills. And then “Ain’t Going Nowhere,” which LaVette rocked hard with guitarist Brett Lucas and James Simonson on bass, while Evan Mercer rounded it out on keys.
For the next song, Bettye LaVette again joked that despite a smooth working relationship with long time Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell on the recent release, they had “disagreed” about the next song, as she laughed. “Larry told me this one was either about a chick that Dylan went to bed with and couldn’t get over, or a chick that he never went to bed with that he couldn’t get over. But I thought it was about something different.” And LaVette presented a “Mama You’ve Been On My Mind,” that seized the room and made them all tear up for their childlike need for their mamas they were missing.
“No Mercy,” a frolicking “Ain’t Walking” and then “The Times They Are a Changin’,” and the power in the room was intense. For the next number, Bettye LaVette said “this next song surprised me, Bob Dylan says the words, but he doesn’t express the emotion. He doesn’t want you to know how he feels. But for this one, the night I was really studying and learning this one, I came out to have a glass of champagne with my husband, and I sat down and I said, ‘honey, Bob Dylan is making me cry,’ and my husband said ‘no, baby, it’s the champagne.” The crowd giggled, and at this, with impeccable timing, LaVette launched into “Emotionally Yours,” and pulled at the emotions of the rapt crowd til there couldn’t have been a dry eye in the house. She has a voice that cracks with emotion and the whole room felt like we were emotionally hers and were absolutely convinced that Dylan did, after all, have yearning emotions under his generally dead pan vocal delivery.
Then it was Darryl Pierce’s drums launching “Do Right,” which is a real rocking number; and then it was “Going, Going, Gone;” and double encores: her own “Before the Money Came“ from her earlier album Scene of the Crime, and then Sinead O’Conner’s “I Don’t Want What I Haven’t Got.“
Throughout, the crowd was a classy part of the event mirroring LaVette and the band, and they remained wholly focused on the power of Betty LaVette’s vocal delivery, on the woman herself, and the powerhouse band, but at the end they rose in unison and let her know there was no doubt she’d hit her mark. Follow Bettye LaVette and get her album, here. www.bettyelavette.com