required listening

CD Review

BETTYE LAVETTE  -  Blackbirds

Verve (UK) B 0031706-02

I Hold No Grudge; One More Song; Blues For The Weepers; Book Of Lies; Romance In The Dark; Drinking Again; Strange Fruit; Save Your Love For Me; Blackbird

Things Have Changed’, the magnificent Bettye LaVette’s album of interpretations of Bob Dylan songs, marked her debut for Verve Records in 2018 and now, for her label follow-up, we find her inimitable style turning to material mainly associated with great women for whom she holds admiration.  For Bettye, this set is a principally low-key event, her former occasional firey rock style being ditched for the spine-tingling, soul-drenching and soul-draining more downtempo material for which yours truly can never get enough from the lady.  Supported throughout by a quartet of producer, Steve Jordan on drums, Smokey Hormel on guitar, the keyboards of Leon Pendarvis and Tom Barney’s bass - augmented by vibraphone and a string section, where appropriate - the proceedings begin with ‘I Hold No Grudge’, originally cut by Nina Simone and now chosen by Verve as the first single from the set.  Although Bettye had already earmarked the song for recording, it seems that coincidentally co-writer, Angelo Baladamenti contacted her to suggest she sing it.  As he reportedly exclaimed after hearing the result, “I can just see Nina saying, ‘yes, she nailed it’.”  If there has to be a personal favourite here, it falls to Sharon Robinson’s ‘One More Song’.  Singer/songwriter, Robinson could be said to being the ‘baby lady’ here - she’s only 62!  A frequent collaborator with Leonard Cohen over the years, her ‘The High Road’ was previously recorded by Bettye on her 2005 album, ‘I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise’.  Now, the intense lyrics of ‘One More Song’, emoted over prominent piano support, produce nothing less than sheer perfection.  There’s a funkier feel to ‘Blues For The Weepers’ while retaining its downtempo vibe.  This time the nod goes to Della Reese but, as ever, any other treatment is forgotten as Bettye grabs the number by the throat and makes it very much her own.  (Why did I think ‘smoky speakeasy’ as the feeling evoked?)  Despite ‘Book Of Lies’ having been associated with Ruth Brown, it was the only song here where the original was unfamiliar to me.   It’s another opus that could have been written with Bettye in mind: more deep lyrics, steeped in emotion - not even midway through the set and I need to take a deep breath and compose myself!  Pull yourself together, man... track five and it’s ‘Romance In The Dark’.  Wriiten by Lil Green who cut the original, Bettye’s take here is accompanied by a swampy feel from the supporting musicians which works well and, as ever, refuses being dictated to by other versions as, over the years, it has become something of a jazz standard.  ‘Drinking Again’, so much a signature number for Dinah Washington, would have been a brave choice for anyone but Ms LaVette.  Never one to shy away from putting a stamp of her own on a song, slowing the opus to funereal pace and wrenching every ounce of meaning from the lyrics to make it clear to one and all just why she is, indeed, drinking again, ending the number with a defiant whistle.  There’s a defiance too in the lady’s approach to Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit‘ as the pathos in the song is matched by an appropriate bitterness at the attitude of the American South to race and it is hard not to wonder - looking at America today - how pertinent this may remain.  For her mid-1960s version of the Buddy Johnson composition, ‘Save Your Love For Me‘, Nancy Wilson was supported by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet.  Here, it’s the superbly tight quartet of aforementioned musicians - and, again, one must particularly single out the piano work of Leon Pendarvis - that complement the singer, Bettye eschewing the smoother style of Wilson, sounding like she is on her knees as she pleads the words of the song in a manner which the recipient would surely find irresistible to refuse.  The final track, Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Blackbird‘ is not a song I much like, nor do I like the Beatles singing it.  (Perhaps, in keeping with the ladies theme, the nod could have gone to a female version, e.g. Sarah Vaughan.)   Nevertheless, as someone who could make the telephone directory sound like it was just made for her unique rendition, Bettye - over a bed of subtle strings - offers up a virtually new song, intensely personal and, just as she did with more than one of Bob Dylan’s numbers, gives the composers an object lesson in how to do it!  So that’s it - yet another masterpiece from the great lady, but...  And yes, I fear there is a ‘but’.  Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, a ‘Blackbirds‘ tour was announced and the poster/publicity was topped by a beautiful head-and-shoulders shot of a radiant, smiling Bettye.  Then came the album cover... Some sort of drawing?  Some dark, gothic, ghoulish imagination by a weirdo?  And, what’s more, surely rather off-putting to anyone uninitiated as to what might be on the silver disc inside?  And seemingly preferred over that lovely promo pic!  Come on!  My only hope is that it was not the lady herself who was responsible as I truly want to suggest that the person involved in such a choice as an album cover be put up against a wall and shot and I really want to go on hearing much much more of Ms Bettye LaVette!

review posted 6/8/20