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Like many listeners, I have come to Bettye Lavette’s music a little bit late. Just a few months ago, in a bookstore in Tsawassen, we picked up (for music to listen to in the car on the trip back home) the Bob Dylan tribute Chimes of Freedom, a January 2012 release that bills itself on its cover as “honoring 50 years of Amnesty International.” There are some great (and some mediocre) versions of Dylan spread over its 4 CDs, but when our player cued up Bettye Lavette’s cover of “Most of the Time,” I have to say that I was brought up short: it’s a powerful, fierce, committed, startling transformation of the song. “Who,” we had to ask ourselves, “is THAT?” It turns out that 2012 also marks 50 years in music for Bettye Lavette herself. Her first single, “My Man, He’s a Loving Man,” was recorded and released in 1962, when she was sixteen. Her career, for subsequent decades, seems to have been a long struggle for recognition, a story she tells in her forthright autobiography (also published in 2012, though titled after her first album for Anti-), A Woman Like Me. Her concert Saturday night at the Vogue, as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, was a revelation for me, a brilliantly orchestrated overview of that career, featuring songs from her early days to recent versions of Gnarls Barkley, but every song infused with aspects of that struggle to be heard and acknowledged, and given an edgy vitality, a moving immediacy and a grainy depth that lent her performance moment after moment after moment of true greatness. As Marke Andrews notes in an omnibus review in The Vancouver Sunof the festival’s opening weekend,
Despite 50 years in the music business, [Bettye Lavette] remains largely unknown (“We’ve just completed the ninth year of our Who The Hell Is She Tour,” she joked to the audience), and seems determined to prove herself with each performance.
But there was nothing strained or effortful about her singing, only a fierce and unwavering commitment to the emotional substance of each song she chose. She engages lyric and melody on their own terms, but she also remakes them on hers. At one point in the concert, she admitted that she “wasn’t a writer,” but I think that might be exactly what she is. Most of her source material (from standards to Motown classics to country ballads to carnivalesque Tom Waits numbers) is so utterly and radically transformed that it becomes wholly her own; her re-casting of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” which she first covered in 1972, is nothing short of stunning, as she turns his frail nostalgic folk anthem into a tragically affirmative lament for lost days. The highlight of Saturday’s concert, for me, was a version of Pete Townshend’s “Love Reign O’er Me,” which was the song she performed at the Kennedy Center in 2008 that seems to have secured a position for her in the pantheon of epochal voices. Slowing the song, almost to the point of fissure, at the verge of coming apart, drawing out the melodic line syllable by syllable as she felt her way along and through the notes – “Love … reign … o … ver … me …” – she made the music do what it needed to do for her, to allow us to recognize her, that is, to connect with her as a powerfully felt and powerfully feeling human being. I don’t mean to suggest that her voice was especially serene; any saccharine critical platitudes would be belied by her take-no-shit attitude toward her own 50-years-overdue canonization. I think there is something to be said for hearing her performance in relation to what Edward Said called “late style”:
The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works, often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of reality. . . . But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction?
Bettye Lavette offers us neither one of these alternative alone, but sings instead with a resilient, difficult beauty. “Late style,” as Said puts it, “is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality.” In her voice, I hear a collision of fierce self-awareness and commanding aesthetic presence. For real.