Thursday, November 03, 2005

Bettye Lavette - 02/11/2005, Brussels

Doors to the AB's upstairs Club opened at 7, the concert was supposed to start at 8. The guitarist, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Frank Zappa, quietly slipped onto the still-dark stage at around 8:30. The drummer followed a few minutes later. Then came the bassist, unhurried. The keyboardist was stealthy, I didn't notice his entrance. He looked like a scientist, so maybe that was normal. At 8:45, the band launched into an amiable groove driven by Meters-ish organ, and followed up with a jazz-tinged (piano, bass, chords) blues propelled by a powerful and unusual beat. Two instrumentals to warm up, and the FZ-lookalike asked us to welcome the evening's diva, Mrs. Bettye Lavette. Downstairs, many more people had paid twice as much money to see Sioen, the Flemish sophisto-pop singer/pianist of the day. It took only a few words from Mrs. Lavette to prove that they were at the wrong concert.

I was here mainly because of a highly laudatory NY Times review of the singer's new CD, I've Got My Own Hell To Raise, and also because opportunities to see real, old-school soul in an intimate setting are rare. I had high hopes; they were fulfilled: this will be a contender for concert of the year. Lavette sang about how "Joe Henry made a woman out of [her]" at the age of 16 in her backyard, an amusing, inside-joke anachronism (Henry, 44, produced the "nearly 60 years old" singer's new album), about male betrayals and their aftermaths ("I'm not a sparrow/I'm a broken dream"), about the paradox of female strength ("It's not a time to cry," she said, as her voice cracked), about resilience, acceptance and finding peace in a final, heart-breaking a capella song.

Bettye Lavette's frayed, treble-heavy voice was that of classic, raw, heart-on-sleeve soul. Vibratoless and melisma-free, she gave the impression of an unadorned truth. Of course, the greatest trick a performer can pull is to make you believe there are no tricks. I often got the weird impression of her voice coming off a vinyl record, especially when she suddenly overwhelmed and saturated the microphone. Whether screwing up her face or prancing triumphantly across the stage, the singer threw herself unreservedly into every song and every nuance. She ruled and defended her territory, not hesitating to slap an annoyingly boisterous member of the audience. The music went from Al Green/Willie Mitchell achingly slow and minimal 12/8 to funky one-bar black-rock vamps. In short, nearly every tune was a phenomenal performance. I bought the CD and if it's half as good as the concert (I haven't listened to it yet), then it's a must-buy.