“I’m going to do some happier songs now. But I’m going to sing them sadly,” said Bettye LaVette at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, Dec. 22, introducing a bluesy medley of “Jingle Bells,” “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).”
She didn’t really mean it: The medley didn’t come off as sad at all. The comment had more to do with her main singing style, a devastating blues wail that she employed for most of this intense, riveting show.
The timing of the show was perfect, since LaVette’s story has the air of a holiday season fable. A native of Muskegon, Mich., she started recording in her teens, in the early ’60s. She had some minor successes, but never really reached the big time. She was nearly forgotten, but in the mid-2000s, she finally managed to resurrect her career and earn the widespread respect and acclaim that had previously eluded her. Over the last decade, she has been nominated for three Grammys; duetted with Jon Bon Jovi on “A Change Is Gonna Come” at the “We Are One” concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 2009, to celebrate Barack Obama’s inauguration; and told her story in a 2012 autobiography, “A Woman Like Me.”
LaVette, who has lived in West Orange since 2003, usually performs with a band. But she used a stripped-down format, featuring only her and the versatile keyboard player Ed Alstrom, at this show. She didn’t perform any Dylan songs, but did dip into the classic-rock songbook often, for material like The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me,” Tom Waits’ “Yesterday Is Here” and Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.”
A stunning version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” was preceded by a discussion about losing many friends to AIDS; “It Hurts to Be in Love” (recorded by Ray Charles and many others), by a mention that this was the first song she learned to sing, as a child.
It’s not adequate to say that she covered these songs. She transformed every one of them into something different, and very personal.
For the encore, she came down from the stage and sang the title track of her 2015 album, Worthy. She walked among the audience members and looked directly into their eyes as she sang this remarkable song. Like most of the songs in the show, it had an element of sadness, but was also, ultimately, uplifting: “I trace every one of my scars/Right to where I’ve been/A diamond in the dirt/So totally concealed/Way down beneath the hurt/It was so hard for me to feel that I was/Worthy.”
Arlan Feiles opened the the show with a solo piano-and-vocals set full of soulful, anthemic ballads. He held the crowd’s attention, partly through the strength of his music but also through his eloquent spoken introductions, which explained the genesis of each song and tied them together in a cohesive, autobiographical way.
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