Bettye LaVette continues to sing with raw emotion on new ‘LaVette!’ album

by JAY LUSTIG
bettye lavette review

Bettye LaVette, as seen on the cover of her new album, “LaVette!”

In a blurb used to promote Bettye LaVette’s 2012 autobiography “A Woman Like Me,” Pete Townshend — whose Who song “Love, Reign O’er Me” has been sung, by LaVette, with remarkable power — put it well: “How did we miss her for so long?”

LaVette, a Michigan native who now lives in West Orange, had some hits in the ’60s (most notably “My Man — He’s a Lovin’ Man” and “Let Me Down Easy”) but widespread acclaim eluded her for decades. For the last 20 years or so, though, she has changed that with a series of well received albums and high-profile concert appearances (at Kennedy Center Honors shows, the concert celebrating President Obama’s first inauguration, Farm Aid and so on) and earned six Grammy nominations. A footnote no longer, she is now rightly considered one of the greatest singers of her generation.

How did we miss her so long, indeed.

Her new album LaVette! (released on the Jay-Vee Records label) raises another question: How did we miss Randall Bramblett so long? On it, LaVette sings 11 songs written or co-written by the veteran Georgia-based musician, who has worked with and/or had songs recorded by Gregg Allman, Steve Winwood, Bonnie Raitt, Levon Helm, Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic and many others, and been a prolific solo artist as well.

Bramblett isn’t an unknown, certainly. But like LaVette — who has shows over the next week in Red Bank and New York — he has been underappreciated for too long. And LaVette! could make some progress towards correcting that, with LaVette’s intense, emotionally raw singing helping to make each song seem like a gem.

Steve Jordan, whose credits range from Beyoncé to The Rolling Stones, co-produces and anchors the album’s core band on drums. He is joined by Larry Campbell and Chris Bruce on guitars, Leon Pendarvis on keyboards, and Pino Palladino on bass. Guests include Jon Batiste (who adds a frisky piano solo to “Mess About It”; listen below), John Mayer (an aching guitar solo on the bluesy “In the Meantime”), Anthony Hamilton (gospelly backing vocals on “Sooner or Later”), Winwood on organ, Ray Parker Jr. on guitar, James Carter on sax, and more.

BETTYE LAVETTE

The biggest highlight, for me, is “I’m Not Gonna Waste My Love” (listen below), a stately ballad that is both a breakup song and a statement of pride. “After all that we’ve been through, I know what I’ve gotta do/I’m not gonna waste no more of my love on you,” LaVette sings, delivering each heartbreaking word deliberately, and balancing strength and sadness.

There are many other standout tracks, though, including slinky, funk-flavored numbers such as “See Through Me” (featuring percussionist Pedrito Martinez) and “Hard to Be a Human”; the introspective, almost meditative “Concrete Mind”; and the soothing, optimistic seven-minute album-closer “It’s All Right,” featuring vocal support from Tawatha Agee and Cindy Mizelle.

In her career’s remarkable second act, LaVette has given most of her albums themes. I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (2005) included songs by female writers such as Fiona Apple, Lucinda Williams and Sinéad O’Connor. On Interpretations: The British Songbook (2007), she sang her own versions of songs by The Beatles, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and so on. Things Have Changed (2018) featured Bob Dylan classics along with some less well known Dylan material; Blackbirds (2010) was made up, mostly, of songs associated with iconic Black female vocalists such as Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Ruth Brown.

The common thread on all of the albums, and it continues on LaVette!, is that they don’t seem like mere “tributes” to their sources, but intensely personal statements.

“People keep asking, ‘Did you write the songs or did (Bramblett) write them for you?’ Neither is true,” LaVette said, in a recent interview with WBGO’s Gary Walker. “He wrote them for me, but he did not know he was writing them for me because we didn’t know each other. But if I could write, this is exactly what I would say.”

Bettye LaVette performs at City Winery in New York, July 7 at 8 p.m., and The Vogel at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, July 11 at 7:30 p.m.

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