That’s how Bettye LaVette sums up the years before being signed to ANTI-, the record label she credits with dragging her out of more than four decades in obscurity. Now in her 67th year, the mighty soul siren is in prime physical and vocal shape, brash and ballsy as ever, and revelling in the critical acclaim that has eluded her since she recorded her first single at 16 years old, 1962’s My Man, He’s A Loving Man.
The R&B veteran, who shares a double bill at Métropolis on July 4th with the equally historic Wanda Jackson, is only now enjoying the kind of success her co-biller achieved in the 60s. Despite having recorded some 60 songs for major labels like Motown and Atlantic, the stubbornly persistent perils of shelved albums, vanishing label execs and lost recordings kept Bettye LaVette tucked tightly away from the public eye, relegated to her garden where she trimmed hedges between local gigs in Detroit.
But LaVette’s so-called “buzzard luck” began to change with her 2005 ANTI- debut, I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, on which the singer twists and grinds folk, rock and country classics by Lucinda Williams and Fiona Apple into the gritty, soul-drenched testimonies of a weary old woman taking one last, begrudging stab at stardom.
To her surprise, the album achieved widespread critical acclaim and spawned what the singer wryly calls her ongoing “Who The Hell Is She?” tour, which sees her playing concert halls and festivals from Sydney to Cape Town in support of Hell to Raise, as well as her subsequent ANTI- releases, 2007’s The Scene Of The Crime, 2010’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, and 2012’s Thankful ‘N’ Thoughtful.
In concert, Bettye LaVette’s stage presence is arresting, her focus sharp, and her voice remarkable. The singer’s obvious bitterness only adds to her exquisitely poignant delivery, (not to mention hilarious stage banter). Her powerhouse live performances have sustained praise from critics as noble as the New York Times, who gleamed: “She uses every scrape, shout and break in her raspy voice, with a predator’s sense of timing, to seize the drama of a song.” Fellow music veteran James Taylor was likewise enthusiastic in his praise: “Bettye’s voice” he gushed, “is like an authentic beacon in a world of artifice.”
With wisdom borne from 50 years of struggles both personal and professional, the songstress’ repertoire is vast: a master interpreter, LaVette is equally at ease tackling Dolly Parton’s Little Sparrow as The Who’s Love Reign O’er Me, her performance of which, at the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors, brought Robert Daltrey and Pete Townshend to tears. The song has since become a staple in her live performances.
As Soul Patrol writes “If it’s comparisons you’re looking for, just think of the space right between Etta James and Aretha Franklin. That’s where you will find Bettye LaVette.” With a rare talent possessed by only the mightiest of Jazz Fest alums, Bettye LaVette’s Metropolis show is sure to be one of the scorching highlights of this year’s festival.
Bettye LaVette plays Metropolis with Wanda Jackson on Thursday, July 4th. 8:30pm. Tickets: http://www.ticketmaster.ca.