Exclaim!

Bettye LaVette

Festival Tent, Halifax NS, July 9

Bettye LaVette
Photo: Michelle Doucette
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"That's the part Dick Clark didn't like," laughed Bettye LaVette as she slowly swivelled her hips suggestively in a circle. She had introduced "My Man—He's a Lovin' Man," her top ten R&B hit from 1962, explaining that her dream as a teenager was to end up on American Bandstand. Alas, that particular song was deemed a bit too racy, especially given she was only 16 at the time. While it upset her then, 50-plus years later she was the one laughing.

You distinctly got the sense she'd told that story before. LaVette's Jazz Fest set had a professional's precision and a veteran's poise. Aside from a couple somewhat off-key quips — treating Canada as singular in the same fashion as a smaller country, including referring to Neil Young as a "hometown guy" — the 68-year-old soul survivor has probably done a similar show thousands upon thousands of times. In some ways, she was going through the motions.

But, oh, the motions. LaVette has one of those pained, powerful voices that can wring heart-ripping sadness or exhilarating joy out of the same material, just depending on how she swerves to each note. She shimmied and danced across the stage with bold confidence, in such a way that seemed to acknowledge her age while also giving it the middle finger. Aside from "My Man," the vast majority of the material came from LaVette's post-2003 revival, or as she called it, "my coming out of the crypt" phase. That meant mostly covers: soulful, oft-thrilling takes on songs by the Who ("Love Reign O'er Me"), Bob Seger ("Like a Rock"), Fiona Apple ("Sleep to Dream") and a back-to-back set of Neil Young classics ("Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" and "Heart of Gold.")

Soul, perhaps more than any other pop genre, welcomes this sort of appropriation, in part because its focus on the singer allows for vocal creativity paired with musical conservatism (a crowd-pleasing combo), and in part because its generic tradition so openly embraces it. Rather than fighting to achieve modernity and currency, soul aims for timelessness, pulling songs out of their original contexts and placing them within a legacy of melodic hurt, joy and weighted breaths. You'd never have suspected that LaVette's set-closing a capella of "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" was originally a Sinéad O'Connor song if you didn't recognize it, yet it didn't seem distinctly LaVette's either. It's like LaVette is a steward of these songs, rather than their owner — and a wonderful steward at that.
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