by Jenna Dixon
Do you have any idea how lucky we are that Bettye LaVette is playing the Ark on Wednesday, December 7? Do you? I didn't think so.
All fall, this extraordinary, criminally unknown soul singer has been on tour in support of her new album, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, selling out rooms across the country and in Paris, London, Vienna, and Amsterdam, appearing on Letterman, and selling more records in six weeks than her last record ever sold. For those who love LaVette and have for years, for those who've watched her career begin to soar over the last three years, for those who've watched her artistry continue to deepen and dare, one word echoes as the world takes notice: finally.
Born in Muskegon, raised in Detroit, and nursed on the blues, LaVette has lived a life of great opportunity, cavernous disappointment, and steady survival. She scored a hit with "My Man (He's a Lovin' Man)" when she was just sixteen. Got signed to labels, got dropped from labels, made records, had those records shelved for no good reason. Toured the country in Bubbling Brown Sugar opposite Cab Calloway. Had sporadic hits and near hits. It's all added up to a strangely bifurcated career. She's treated like royalty, mobbed, and clutched at in many parts of Europe, where Detroit soul music is seriously revered, and where audiences loudly demand their favorite Bettye LaVette songs and search the Internet for her early, rare releases. But mention her name to a stateside music lover and you're likely to get a furrowed brow and a distant look and "I think I know who you mean. . . ."
But LaVette's riding a good track these days. Newly signed to the adventuresome Anti Records, she's made a stellar album of songs by women songwriters everyone from Sinéad O'Connor to Joan Armatrading to Dolly Parton. (She sang Parton's "Little Sparrow" for the Letterman appearance and took the plaintive
simplicity of the song to a startling intersection of wisdom and rage.) She bravely personalizes Lucinda Williams's classic "Joy," filling it with the places of her own life: the Motor City, Muscle Shoals, even West Orange, New Jersey, where LaVette now lives with her husband, an art glass collector and blues musician. The band she tours with features some of Detroit's finest musicians: Bill Farris on guitar, Pat Prouty on bass, and Darryl Pierce on drums. And Ann Arbor's own Al Hill has been her musical director and keyboardist for the past three years.
When you see Bettye LaVette at the Ark, sit as close as you can. You don't just hear a LaVette song you watch it. She interprets, inhabits, flays, and lays bare each phrase, each word. It's heavy stuff, not pretty at all, but beautiful, stunning. LaVette's like Lady Macbeth on Cass Avenue on a dark night. She walks through the hard stuff so we don't have to.
[Review published December 2005]