Bettye LaVette / The James Hunter Six Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto ON, June 27

Bettye LaVette / The James Hunter Six Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto ON, June 27
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A less than capacity crowd was on hand for this nicely complementary double bill. Sharon Jones was to be the headliner, but soul veteran LaVette was recruited when Jones fell ill (in a nice touch, LaVette sent Jones encouragement from the stage). Anglo R&B singer/guitarist James Hunter certainly warmed the crowd up for her, delivering a spirited set meriting the standing ovation it received. Hunter has been a frequent visitor to Toronto, and his five-piece band features his long-time horn section of Damian Hand and Lee Badau. He concentrated on selections from his new album, Minute By Minute, with highlights including "Goldmine," "Chicken Switch" and the humorous "The Gypsy." It would have been nice to hear more from his 2006 album, People Gonna Talk, still his best work. One of his best-received tunes was a cover of The '5' Royales hit, "Baby Don't Do It." Hunter is something of a one- (or two-) trick-pony, with his material lacking wide dynamic range. Still, he is a fluent guitarist, convincingly soulful singer, and warm and witty performer, and is a stronger talent than other more-hyped retro R&B artists.

This is billed as Bettye LaVette's 50th anniversary tour, marking a half-century in the music business that has seen many downs before a major career upturn over the last decade. Age is clearly on her mind, and she joked at one point "at least I can now afford walkers to go with my outfits." No walkers present here, as her lithe 67-year-old figure moved around the stage with ease. LaVette has a large catalogue to draw from, and there weren't many songs duplicated here from her Fest set a year ago. One returning tune, Lucinda William's "Joy," was a show highlight and the best groove of the night.

Much of the set comprised songs from her most recent album, Thankful N' Thoughtful. After a somewhat slow beginning, things picked up with two consecutive Neil Young songs, "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" and LaVette's ace rendition of "Heart Of Gold" as a piano and voice ballad. She was in top vocal form on "The More I Search (The More I Die)," a dark and sad ballad by Kim McLean ("if I could write, I'd want to write lyrics like this," LaVette explained). There were flaws in the show, such as a crackling speaker and muddy sound mix early on. Her four-piece band was certainly competent, but it'd be nice to see her teamed with a funkier and more energetic team. She is a convincingly theatrical performer, using her hands and face to help express emotion and working the crowd with a natural ease. LaVette's ability to take a well-known song, turn it upside down and make it her own was best exemplified on her take on Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." "If you are in this business, you are crazy," she joked in introducing it, prior to turning it into another emotion-soaked ballad. Crazy, like a fox.