Friday, November 04, 2005

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: BETTYE'S BACK

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Nov. 4, 2005


The new album by soul belter Bettye LaVette, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise reminds me of a couple of other excellent albums from recent years.

There are obvious similarities between LaVette’s latest and Solomon Burke’s 2002 CD Don’t Give Up on Me. Both were produced by roots rocker Joe Henry, and both consist primarily of vibrant covers written by better known, (primarily) rock artists. (Burke sang tunes by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. Here LaVette covers Sinead O’Connor, Lucinda Williams, Joan Armatrading, Aimee Mann, Dolly Parton and other female composers.)

Perhaps even more comparable to LaVette’s new album is Howard Tate’s 2003 tasty “comeback” album Rediscovered. (I’ve actually become angry when I saw this CD in bargain bins at a record store a few months ago. “The fools!” I nearly screamed.) Like Tate, LaVette is an unjustly overlooked singer who should have been a huge star in the 1960s, but through a series of strange misfortunes, somehow missed the boat. I’d like to believe that there’s a parallel world somewhere in some galaxy in which both Howard and Bettye are right up there in higher reaches of the soul pantheon.

Unlike Tate, who went missing for several decades after his recording career flopped, LaVette stuck with it, her career “like a case study in the annuls of Murphys Law, full of bad luck, wrong decisions and nonstop professional disappointments,” a wise critic once wrote.

On the new CD, Henry has assembled a very capable but unassuming batch of musicians to back her up (guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, no horn section.) But he wisely allows LaVette’s voice to remain front and center.

The album starts off with “I Do Not Want What I Do Not Have,” which was the title song of Sinead’s greatest album. Like the original, LaVette’s version is performed a capella. But the similarities end there. O’Connor’s version sounded like the cry of a wounded child. LaVette -- who has taken so many liberties with the melody she should get songwriter credits, sounds like a field holler, oozing with raw spiritual power.

Then the band comes in for “Joy” with a funky crunching guitar (Doyle Bramhall II) and LaVette shouting the title. This is one of Lucinda Williams’ greatest rockers. I never thought anyone would ever make it better, but somehow LaVette did.

She turns Parton’s folkish “Little Sparrow” into a voodoo-soaked blues, while “The High Road” written for LaVette by Sharon Robinson sounds like a gospel ballad worthy of Mavis Staples. But even prettier is “Just Say So,” in which LaVette is accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. It sounds like a long, lost Stax demo.

The only slight disappointment here is “Down to Zero,” the song that introduced Joan Armatrading to the world in the late ‘70s. LaVette’s cover is worthwhile, but I find myself missing Armatrading’s understated moan.

The album ends with Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream,” whose refrain not only gave LaVette the title for her album, but also reveals the singer’s underlying attitude: “This mind, this body, and this voice cannot be stifled by your deviant ways. … I‘ve got my own Hell to raise.” It’s not clear to whom LaVette is directing her rage. But I wouldn’t want to be the one to try to stifle this voice.

(The photo of Bettye LaVette is from Robert Mugge's Blues Divas.)

Also Recommended:

One Night Stand: Live at the Harlem Square Club 1963; Night Beat; The Best of Sam Cooke. With a new biography on the shelves (Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke) and these three reissues from RCA/Legacy, perhaps the time has come for a full-fledged Sam Cooke revival.

This new version of One Night Stand is the “20th anniversary edition” of an album which for reasons I will never understand wasn’t released until 1985, more than 20 years after Cooke’s death.

Before this, the only live Cooke album was the rather tame Live at the Copa, which showed the softer, smoother, more uptown side of Sam. But here, Cooke, fresh off a British tour with Little Richard is all sweat and grit in this Miami show. With a band led by R&B sax titan King Curtis (grim note: both Cooke and Curtis died as a result of homicide), Cooke rips through most of his biggest hits, spotlighting the gospel fervor that had only been hinted at in the studio versions.

One Night Stand was recorded in January 1963. About a month and a half later he went into the studio and in three nights recorded what would become Night Beat.
It’s not nearly as raw as the Harlem Square show, but no less soulful. Here he plays with a small combo, including a young Billy Preston on organ. While Cooke wrote most of his own material, Night Beat is a collection of blues songs, including some Charles Brown tunes and a snazzy takes on the Howlin’ Wolf hit “Little Red Rooster” and Mississippi Fred McDowell‘s “You Gotta Move.”

But the record starts out with a quietly urgent version of the old spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”.

The fact he was doing religious material is significant. Cooke started out as a gospel singer with the influential Soul Stirrers and his “defection” to the world of pop was considered by some as an affront to God Himself. But Cooke proved here that his gospel roots still were strong.

I like the “Best Of” album here mainly, to steal a Cooke hit title, “For Sentimental Reasons.” It was one of the first albums I ever owned in the early ‘60s. It still makes me grin when I read the hyped-up headline that was on the original back cover: “He lives in the Top Ten…”

Still there are far better retrospectives to introduce a new fan. Both Portrait of a Legend, released just two years ago and The Man and His Music (1986) have about twice as many tracks, and unlike this one, contain “A Change is Gonna Come.”

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