If one needs proof of the existence of a cosmic overmind or benevolent deity, the recent re-emergence of Bettye LaVette should be all the evidence required.
Lavette toiled away in relative obscurity in the ‘60s and ‘70s when she should have been lionized and feted with the same future Hall of Fame fervor accorded to Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. She did disco in the late ‘70s and Motown R&B/Pop in the ‘80s and even gave up recording to do Bubbling Brown Sugar on Broadway for six years before finally getting the recognition she so richly deserves, returning to take her rightful place as one of the greatest Soul vocalists of all time. Her comeback albums — 2003’s A Woman Like Me, 2005’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise and 2007’s Scene of the Crime, co-produced by LaVette and Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood — have all raised her profile to the level she should have been enjoying since the very start of her career as a 16-year-old in Detroit.
LaVette’s recent releases have been triumphs of the style she’s been honing for four decades, but on her latest abum, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, LaVette applies her magnificent instrument, a stunning voice that would sound passionate singing the transcript of a Senate sub-committee hearing on bank regulations, to some of the greatest songs in the British Rock canon.
The Beatles, collectively and individually, figure highly here: “The Word” from Rubber Soul and George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” become Gospel prayers, while Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy” is transformed into a slow Blues burner and Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” is a Soul torch ballad of the first magnitude. Even more surprising are LaVette’s astonishing reinventions of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” and Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love,” all done to a shivering turn.
The climax of Interpretations is LaVette’s spine-tingling take on The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me,” which she uncorked at the band’s Kennedy Center Honors celebration two years ago, a jaw-dropping performance that actually inspired the concept behind this album. LaVette’s work on Interpretations is so brilliant and patently awe-inspiring that there’s really only one thing missing here: the words “Volume One” in the subtitle.