I feel so fortunate to have seen Bettye LaVette live – it was around a decade ago, Rodger Fox brought her out to New Zealand and it was just before what now feels like her second career. The last decade has seen a handful of albums, all of them worthy. This new one spells that out that, it truly is Worthy.
LaVette still has her voice (unlike Aretha) and she’s been stronger in song-selection than Mavis Staples. She hasn’t really put a foot wrong.
She’s worked with intuitive, empathic producers (here it’s Joe Henry, previously Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers had a turn at the helm) and she knows – so deeply – how to own a song, how to win it, wrestle it away from its writer, redefine it.
Here we hear that good ole country-soul, mellifluous guitar lines (Doyle Bramhall) and hushed-brushed drums (Jay Bellerose) on a wonderful reprisal of The Amazing Rhythm Aces’ Just Between You And Me And The Wall You’re A Fool. Often (Undamned, Stop, Bless Us All) it’s as if the authentic spirit of Muscle Shoals is alive and well and we’re hearing an album lost to time; just as much as this is so obviously brand new and startling.
LaVette will take from the big guns (Dylan, The Beatles, Rolling Stones) and from journeymen players (Randall Bramlett). She’ll shape a song formerly by Over The Rhine or redefine/refine something by Mickey Newbury.
You could own this album just for the songs – the selections, and how they’ve been served. But then you’d also be owning it for exactly what LaVette does to them, she gives them a voice through her voice – a new sound, a new world for the song to reside in. She gives them space, a fresh place, a brand new home. Her version of Wait manages something truly rare in a world of far too many Beatles covers. Similarly, she reworks Dylan’s Unbelievable and The Rolling Stones’ Complicated, these three songs to be celebrated as much for the fact that they’re the quirky, not obvious choice.
Bramlett’s Where Life Goes and Brian Mitchell and Christine Santelli’s Step Away would be album highlights were this not stacked with no-filler magic. The Beth Neilsen Chapman/Mary Gauthier title track that closes this album gives off a similar feeling to Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up On Me. Where that was so obviously a final victory lap this, majestically, feels like a woman in the middle, even near the start, of her career. That’s what Bettye LaVette can do any time and every time she steps up the microphone. She makes you forget about time and place and anything else. Hers is a voice that owns any song. The 11 snared for Worthy will lift your soul, they’ll transport you. They’ll make you feel good. Another career-defining performance from one of the most consistent soul singers to ever grace the stage.
She is the lightning. And the band knows just how to bottle it.