Bettye LaVette – ArtsCenter (Carrboro, NC)
“This next one was written and recorded by Joe Simon,” said Bettye LaVette, introducing her third song of the evening. Then came the perfect pause before she added, “But I sing it better.” With that, LaVette once again took ownership of Simon’s “Your Time To Cry”, a song she originally recorded in Muscle Shoals in 1972 under the title “Your Turn To Cry”. The kind of unintentional eavesdropping which occurs when waiting in a tight line for doors to open revealed that some people attending this show knew next to nothing about LaVette. By the time she launched into Simon’s song, any rookies had become well acquainted with the veteran soul singer. The teasing intro was LaVette’s trademark feistiness on display, and the number’s delivery a showcase for her interpretive genius. That powerhouse ballad, teamed with her first two songs — a strutting take on Free’s “The Stealer” (another ’72 Shoals effort) and the swamp-soul nugget “He Made A Woman Out Of Me” — made it clear what LaVette is all about, and has been all about for 45 years of making music. Yep, 45 years. LaVette is 61 (she told us — a gentle audience doesn’t ask a lady her age), but you’d never know it. Dressed confidently and elegantly in a black sleeveless blouse and black pants, she looked — and moved — 25 years younger. Her performance was the cure for shoegazing; she looked you in the eye and shared every emotion, not just with her voice and her facial expressions but also with her arms and her hands right down to her long, silver nails. She leaned on 2005’s Joe Henry-produced I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise during the show’s middle third, with Lucinda Williams’ “Joy”, Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow” and an especially expressive version of Joan Armatrading’s “Down To Zero” all further demonstrating her knack for claiming the songs of others. In that same vein, two songs later, came a knockout take on John Prine’s “Souvenirs”. Allowing herself what she called “a senior citizen moment,” LaVette sat at the front of the stage and soul-whispered the song to a start, presenting the first verse unaccompanied before being joined by the piano of music director Alan Hill and, gradually, by the rest of her crack four-piece backing band. The stripped-down setting and LaVette’s seasoned vocals gave extra punch to “Broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see,” a line that still echoes weeks later. “Souvenirs” would have been the highlight of most shows, but that honor belonged to the night’s closer, a goosebumps-inducing version of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got”. The band exited, leaving LaVette’s voice the sole instrument; she turned the song into something that felt ancient and shared and undeniably spiritual. In the hush that followed in the wake of the last stirring note, LaVette walked away with waves and a smile, and guitarist/emcee Bill Farris reappeared. It took him three exhortations of “The Legendary Bettye LaVette!” to get the level of response he was after. No disrespect meant. I just think we were all still a little stunned.