Several years ago, Bettye LaVette told New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson: “I am not a music enthusiast. I’m not a fan of music. I’m the music. I don’t know another way to phrase that. I don’t mean to sound arrogant. When you talk to my husband, you can see his love for music on his face, but for me it’s like living with a man for forty-eight years, and y’all don’t get along, but you’ve got used to each other.” Appearing at the Toronto Jazz Festival last night, the singer said it was part of her 50th anniversary tour (LaVette cut her first single, an elusive hit, when she was 16), following a decade-long “Who the Hell Is She Tour.” It took half a lifetime to get the break she deserved.
LaVette has a rough, throaty voice, with concise range; you could dissolve a body in the high notes she does hit. People call her a soul singer, but she rejects that description for the older aegis of rhythm-and-blues, saying to Wilkinson: “My thing was never holy. I never had pure thoughts.” If a dialectic of pews and bedrooms is central to American popular music, LaVette long ago chose the club over the church. With a voice like that, a band can often show it off best by just getting out of the way (she often sings behind the beat), and hers did so nimbly, catching up when they had to. Even the scratchy noise creeping into the mix now and then felt like part of the landscape.
When a venerable singer gets lovingly unpacked by younger, better-connected musicians or producers, the dynamic between them sometimes resembles an Antiques Roadshow segment, as sentimental attachments awkwardly yield to commercial evaluations. LaVette never seems to be doing a number she’d rather not. Decades of grinding it out have given her a selective, dispassionate ear—one theory of her non-stardom is bad luck in songwriters—and she rewrites lyrics freely. Although there were a few originals, such as the 50-year-old “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man,” her setlist leaned towards the covers repertoire of her recent albums, rendering “Love Reign O’er Me” or “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” as spare, rasping confidences. When she sang “Yesterday is Here,” by “my labelmate, Tom Waits,” one sensed a kinship deeper than shared publicists.
Midway through the show, LaVette introduced “Heart of Gold,” a song she’d wanted to cover when Neil Young first released it. Some executive or manager convinced her that this would confuse her fans. And then, after loud applause, she half-joked: “Since I no longer care what you think…” The very Canadian crowd quieted to a hush as LaVette sang “I’ve been to Hollywood / I’ve been to Redwood,” like a refrain, over the barest instrumentation. Eventually she began moving her hands in time with each drumbeat, eyes closed, as if plucking sound from some distant aether. It was ritualistic yet abstracted, a secular transcendence.