Introducing her bluesy rendition of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” — the 1967 First Edition hit that she recorded in 1968 — at her concert at Montclair’s Outpost in the Burbs, May 12, Bettye LaVette said that Kenny Rogers once hired her to be a background vocalist. “But he had to fire me, ’cause I can’t sing background,” LaVette said.
Yes, it’s hard to imagine LaVette blending into the background for anyone. As she has done throughout her long career, she sang, at the Outpost, in a way that wrenched meaning from every syllable, and kept you hanging on every word. Backed by keyboardist Evan Mercer — “the youngest person I know,” joked LaVette about their substantial age difference — LaVette was in commanding form throughout the concert, which featured songs from various phases of her career, including several from her 2020 album, Blackbirds.
A Detroit native who now lives in West Orange, she ended the show with a track from that album — the Paul McCartney-written Beatles song, “Blackbird” — turning it into an intensely personal statement: “I took my wings and I learned to fly.” Besides “Blackbird,” which was included on the album for obvious reasons, Blackbirds features songs by Black female singers who influenced LaVette. At the Outpost, she also sang the album’s “I Hold No Grudge” and “Save Your Love for Me” — numbers associated with Nina Simone and Nancy Wilson, respectively — and called the project as a whole “an homage to the bridge that I came across on.”
She sat throughout most of the show, sometimes clapping her hands or slapping her thighs for percussive emphasis. She opened with a jazzy, ebullient version of the jazz/cabaret standard “Misty” and, shortly thereafter, talked about how happy she is to be performing for in-person crowds again after months of pandemic-induced inactivity. (The Outpost show was originally scheduled for May 2020.)
Before performing an aching version of Bob Dylan’s “Mama, You Been on My Mind,” she explained that she thinks about her mother, and not a significant other, when she sings it. And singing the song itself reduced her to tears.
One of the most fascinating aspects of her professional resurgence over the last 20 years or so — “my fifth career,” she called it in Montclair — is the way she’s drawn on songs by Rock Era writers and made them her own. The Who’s Pete Townshend-written “Love, Reign O’er Me,” for instance, is something she once thought she’d never attempt, she said. But since singing it when The Who received Kennedy Center Honors in 2008, she has made it one of her signature songs, and it was as riveting as ever at The Outpost (see video below). She also dug fairly deep into the Bob Seger and Tom Waits songbooks for “Someday” and “Yesterday Is Here,” respectively.
I’ve been lucky enough to see LaVette in concert a handful of times since that “fifth career” began. And somehow, she keeps getting better.
For more about LaVette, visit bettyelavette.com.
Here is the show’s setlist and, below it, a video of “Love, Reign O’er Me”:
“Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home”
“I Hold No Grudge”
“Save Your Love for Me”
“Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”
“I Guess We Shouldn’t Talk About That Now”
“Yesterday Is Here”
“Serves Him Right”
“Let’s Straighten It Out”
“My Man — He’s a Lovin’ Man”
“Love, Reign O’er Me”
“A Woman Like Me”
“Mama, You Been on My Mind”
“It Hurts to Be in Love”
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