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Bettye LaVette at the Café Carlyle

Published: 2012-03-21
Bettye LaVette After decades of struggle and semi-obscurity, the singer Bettye LaVette has brought anguish and resilience to her set at the Café Carlyle.

The soul singer Bettye LaVette knows about suffering. In her rendition of the grinding blues lament “The Forecast (Calls for Pain)," at the Café Carlyle last week, this song of deep foreboding culminated with her repeated feral cries of the word “pain."

In the song, popularized two decades ago by Robert Cray, love is like the weather. It inevitably changes, and there is nothing you can do about it: “My baby's turning cold, and the forecast calls for pain." That's it. There has been no cheating yet, but there will be, with worse to follow.

But Ms. LaVette, now 66, also knows about resilience. Another stunning moment in her show was an a cappella rendition of Sinead O'Connor's “I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," an expression of gratitude and acceptance for a hard life while trudging through a blazing desert. She treated it as stirring gospel testament.

Ms. LaVette is quick to note that she spent 45 years in relative obscurity before she was rediscovered several years ago. Now recognized as one of the great soul interpreters of her generation, she has a gift that, in my opinion, makes her the equal of Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner. And Ms. LaVette is savoring what was long denied her. Instead of a diva making grand gestures, she is an R&B realist who tells it like it is.

Her idiom is lean, Memphis-style soul, which is played fervently by her band: the keyboardist Alan Hill, the bassist Chuck Bartels, the guitarist Brett Lucas and the drummer Darryl Pierce. Although Ms. LaVette sings it raw, with minimal vocal embellishment, this slender, fit woman, with power to spare in her voice, infuses everything with the narrative acuity of a natural storyteller who has survived to deliver the tale.

Her minor 1965 hit, “Let Me Down Easy," a breakup song that, she said, kept her career sputtering along for years, was delivered with the same fierce immediacy as “The Forecast (Calls for Pain)." Instead of “pain," the coda in “Let Me Down Easy" was the cry “please," uttered as a rending howl to a departing lover.

Since her return, Ms. LaVette has specialized in revitalizing pop, rock and country songs by giving them the full R&B treatment. She found the anguished heart of the George Jones hit “Choices," a self-recriminating song about paying dues for reckless living. Billy Strayhorn's standard “Lush Life," done as a slow-burning jazz-blues arrangement, also became an expression of bitter self-recognition in which the narrator's decision to abandon hope and “live the lush life in some small dive" is a conscious, if perverse, decision.

Ms. LaVette's show may have tilted a bit toward the grim, but it didn't include a single false moment. What more can you ask of an artist than to lay out the truth?

Bettye LaVette performs through March 31 at the Café Carlyle, at the Carlyle Hotel, 35 East 76th Street, Manhattan; (212) 744-1600, thecarlyle.com.


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