Bettye LaVette’s Rock Songs Turned Testaments of Triumphant Soul

Bettye LaVette
To choose a song at random from the soul singer Bettye LaVette's astounding two-hour show at the Café Carlyle on Tuesday evening, how about that jolly 1971 Ringo Starr singalong, “It Don't Come Easy"? If you are like me, you probably never paid much attention to the lyrics of a number that's catchy enough but no great shakes as a piece of songwriting.

Yet from the moment Ms. LaVette growled the declaration, “Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues, and you know it don't come easy," it became a testament to the long, hard road traveled to get from there (1962, when a 16-year-old Ms. LaVette had her first minor R&B hit) to here, in one magnificent piece.

It was six years ago that Ms. LaVette, now 65, was signed by Anti-Records, which recorded her acclaimed album “I've Got My Own Hell to Raise," and the groundswell of recognition began. Although she hasn't achieved the commercial heights of Tina Turner, another classic soul singer whose career was similarly resurrected two decades ago, their later-life triumphs have a lot in common. Ms. LaVette's ultimate moment in the sun so far has been her transfixing 2008 gospel performance of the Who song “Love Reign O'er Me" at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors. Her rendition was one of many high points of Tuesday's show. Her career, she said with a mixture of pride and bitterness, has been “a 50-year battle."

Ms. LaVette has taken good care of herself. She is one of the few singers her age who can bare their chiseled arms proudly. Her voice is ragged only in the sense that she doesn't prettify notes that emanate from the primal place where the spirit and the body unite. This is soul singing at its rawest and most persuasive.

Her excellent band—Alan Hill on keyboards, Chuck Bartels on bass, Brett Lucas on guitar and Darryl Pierce on drums—supported her with lean, slow-burning arrangements in which Mr. Lucas's terse, grinding solos struck sparks. The sound was a throwback to the spare, sinewy style of '70s hits by Al Green and Ann Peebles.

Gospel-flavored soul ballads dominated a program that turned virtually every song into a reflection of Ms. LaVette's battle. Several numbers, including Elton John and Bernie Taupin's “Talking Old Soldiers" and the Traffic classic “No Time to Live," bluntly addressed aging and the brevity of existence.

For all of Ms. LaVette's vocal resemblance to Ms. Turner, she is not half as playful and upbeat. Ms. LaVette and the band never cut loose to deliver a full-tilt cry of exuberance. The reflections on sex and relationships told of power struggles, betrayals and emotional survival.

One of the more optimistic songs, “Closest I'll Get to Heaven," by the Australian pop-soul singer and songwriter Renee Geyer, is a bittersweet recognition that the ecstasy of the moment won't last long. It is the embattled anthem of a woman who has dreamed big and been disappointed often enough to have learned to savor the good times when they come.

Even the Beatles' “Blackbird" became autobiographical. “All your life/You were waiting for this moment to arise," declare lyrics that could have been written about Ms. LaVette's triumphant ascendance.

Bettye LaVette performs through June 3 at the Café Carlyle, at the Carlyle Hotel, 35 East 76th Street, Manhattan; (212) 744-1600, thecarlyle.com.

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