2007’s The Scene of the Crime dope-slapped the world into taking notice of veteran soul-slinger Bettye LaVette. The pisser is, LaVette had already been keeping it real for over 40 years at that point. It just took a killer back-up band who idolized her (the Drive-By Truckers) and a classic setting (FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals) to catch the public’s ear. You couldn’t blame Bettye LaVette if her reaction had been, “Where were you all these last couple of decades?” But, no: LaVette took her newfound/long-worked-for fame (Grammy nomination and all) in stride and simply kept on keeping it real.
Which brings us to her latest project, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. And talk about interpretations: LaVette has a knack for taking hold of a tune, wrapping herself up in it, and simply becoming the damn thing. In lesser hands, her powerful delivery could seem overplayed at times, but with LaVette, you have a talented actress whose ability to suss out a piece’s soul lends authenticity to her performance.
In the course of Interpretations, LaVette taps into the Beatles’ work a few times – both solo and collective works. In her hands, _Rubber Soul_’s “The Word” becomes a total funk beast and sounds like it was always meant to be that way. She ratchets up the ache of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity” several notches, turns Ringo’s “It Don’t Come Easy” into a slinky slow-burner, and whips “Maybe I’m Amazed” into a total bare-it-all testimony of devotion.
Some tunes receive a significant reworking: “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” lays The Animals’ pleading operatic arrangement to one side and takes on a “Heard It Through The Grapevine”-like vibe; Derek and the Dominos’ driving rhythm on “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad” is replaced by a way-funky butt-shake. In both cases, it absolutely works.
Led Zep’s “All My Love” trades off the original synthed strings for some Cropperish guitar work, while keeping the original tempo intact. By the time you reach the fade-out, there’s no doubting that LaVette means every word. The same goes for Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”: the pain feels raw and real. Lovely acoustic guitar takes the place of the original piano on Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, allowing LaVette’s vocal to lead the way. And leaving no Stone unturned, LaVette takes on “Salt Of The Earth”, letting the Jagger/Richards classic lope along at a soulful tempo and resisting the urge to go into full-fledged rave-up at the end. (Even so, it doesn’t lack for power.)
Interpretations concludes with a live performance of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” from the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors – a performance which reportedly flattened Pete Townshend, who was in the audience that evening.
Taking a collection of tunes so familiar that sing-alongs just come naturally and putting this sort of personalized spin on them is risky business. The ears and brain simply expect the song to go this way – and the interpreter is tugging the steering wheel that way … there’s plenty of potential for trouble.
By the time you’ve made one pass through Interpretations, however, Bettye LaVette has you believing that these tunes were written for her to begin with.
And maybe they were.