Friday, November 30, 2012
Review: Bettye LaVette reinvented popular songs in stunning Kessler Theater show
She spun Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream” into a steamy R&B novella.
OAK CLIFF Some people call Bettye LaVette a song interpreter. But really, she’s a song remodeler, gutting a tune down to the studs, rebuilding it to fit her gritty voice and opening the front door so neighbors can come in and “ooh” and “ahh.”
A near-capacity crowd marveled at her reinventions Thursday night at the Kessler Theater as the fiery Detroit singer went to work on sources as diverse as Bob Dylan and Gnarls Barkley. She spun the latter’s “Crazy” into a bluesy fever dream and whittled down Dylan’s apocalyptic “Everything Is Broken” into stark New Orleans funk.
“I’m inclined to agree with Otis Redding when he said Bob Dylan writes too many (darned) words,” she said. “So I took three verses out of this song.”
Those two tunes turned up on her new CD, Thankful N’ Thoughtful, as well as her creepy version of the Black Keys’ “I’m Not the One,” another standout of her 90-minute set. But she also dug into I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, the 2005 disc that put her back on the map and on to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for President Obama’s 2009 inauguration: She turned Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow” into a hair-raising soul opera, before recasting Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream” into a steamy R&B novella.
Not every reinvention took flight. Her overhaul of the Beatles’ “The Word” undercut the melody, while Lucinda Williams' idiosyncratic “Joy” is probably best left for Lucinda to sing. But those were the exceptions in a show full of transfixing music delivered with high drama: Eyes closed, her face pointed to the heavens, LaVette pumped her fists in the air and sang every song as if she had a new lease on life -- which, in a sense, she does.
“This overnight success took 50 years,” the 66-year-old singer told fans. “It’s been a long haul, but things are finally getting better.”
Veteran Dallas soul singer Bobby Patterson was the perfect opening act, warming up the crowd with his classic “T.C.B or T.Y.A.” and telling tales of hanging out with Wilco, Johnnie Taylor, and the Vaughan brothers. He’s still got a powerhouse voice, a hellfire James Brown howl and wicked sense of humor, spinning puns galore and fingering Kessler artistic director Jeff Liles as the scoundrel in “Someone Else is Steppin’ In (Slippin Out, Slippin In).”
Thor Christensen is a Dallas freelance writer.
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