Soul queen Bettye LaVette showed why she is one of the absolute best old-school R&B acts in the country Saturday night during a virtually flawless 80-minute set.
LaVette, backed a super-tight four-piece band, sang songs that spanned much of her career for a largely seated crowd of about 1,000 while tapping into the beloved rock songbook of the late '60s and early '70s. Although LaVette said she initially despised rock music in the '60s because its popularity largely steamrolled the popularity of classic soul sang by her friends and contemporaries in the mid-60s. (LaVette's been singing professionally since she was 17 in 1962).
Despite that initial dislike, her "Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook" is her latest album and her show was highlighted by The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me." However, the concert's arguable highlight came from a song of that period, but not on any of LaVette's releases, "Blackbird." Telling a little known story about how then-Beatle Paul McCartney wrote the song while watching a black woman sing in a park, LaVette noted that no "black bird," as she referred to herself, had sang the song. LaVette's slower, jazzier take on the beloved classic drew the strongest applause of the night and was everything a cover should be - a dramatic reimagination of a song that is demonstrably the singer's own.
LaVette also relied on two of her more recent albums for parts of the set, including "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise" and "The Scene of The Crime." Brilliant takes on "Choices" and "I Still Want To Be Your Baby," along with Lucinda Williams' "Joy" off the former album along with "Little Sparrow" and the soulful "Sleep To Dream."
LaVette spoke often about rising out of the show-biz "crypt" and how she's repeatedly played SLC during the past six years and has steadily grown her audience. While the venue was fine, stuffed seating section draped an in inadvertent wet blanket on the show. Because there was no room to dance, those so inclined barged down front and the seated spectators were doubtlessly annoyed. A decent size dance area would have solved the problem. Who wants to watch world-class R&B while seated and unable to dance?
But these are minor quibbles, the Living Traditions Festival should still be commended for bringing in LaVette. Although whoever the twits were shooting off fireworks around 9 p.m. at Gallivan Center should be subjected to some sort of public humiliation. As (bad) luck would have it, the 'booms' coincided with nearly the quietest moment of the set, LaVette's cover of George Harrison's aptly titled "Isn't It A Pity."
An a capella encore of "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" left many in the audience on their feet for a standing encore. The soulful gospel number featuring LaVette alone on the stage was truly a sight and sound to behold.
Too bad more of SLC wasn't on hand to see this show - it was easily one of the standouts so far of the 2012 concert year.