Bettye LaVette
In New York

By Martin Longley

The sixty-one-year-old Bettye LaVette admits that she thought there might not be another album left in her career, but now The Scene Of The Crime has just been released, and she's eager to punch out its varied collection of stormers and smoochers. There's a sense of occasion to this packed-out gig, the Highline Ballroom effectively being a conventional venue that has its dancefloor ranged with tables for eating and drinking. LaVette concocts an extremely intimate rapport with her audience, which includes several of the songwriting contributors to the album, and The Drive By Truckers, who acted as her band throughout.

Tonight's backing combo are wonderfully variegated, though. The keyboardist/music director and bassist look like conventional pop sessioneers, the drummer's probably from a reggae or rap background and the two guitarists are lard-ass rockers, hairy and screaming out wild rock solos, but also eminently capable of toning things down on the ballad numbers.

The album was recorded at the sonic temple that is Muscle Shoals studio, and features songs penned by Eddie Hinton, Frankie Miller and John Hiatt. I must confess that Sir Elton John's (and Bernie Taupin's) Talking Old Soldiers holds me rapt, with its chilling meditation on the witherings of old age, until a waitress butts into my mordant concentration, ruining Mister Dwight's moment. Never have I hated having an Elton John interlude being interrupted so savagely. In fact, it's been a long time since I've relished any Elton John moment at all. Willie Nelson is the penman of Somebody Pick Up My Pieces, another magnetically quiet portion of the set.

Bettye nearly gets all broken up, as folks who helped her out (financially and otherwise), are seated in the audience, and she's trying hard to avoid catching their faces. Yes, she's endured some hard times, but this can be a useful resource for inflating a vocal majesty. She's one of soul music's finest conduits: rough, raw and raunchy, with every syllable controlledly cracked and croaked, sweet and sometimes smoothly. This is no slick soul trill, but a lived-in cry from the deepest core of pain, exultation, triumph and trauma.

She's a brilliant showoman too, working the stage expertly, traversing left to right in a kind of Tina Turner shuffle, though it could be said that Bettye's extreme moves are strangely reminiscent of Vic Reeves, when he's in bendy go-go dancing mode. LaVette is also an agile, trim figure, pretty much the same age as Iggy Pop, though manifesting her fitness in a slightly different way.

The slow ballads are arresting, but it's the hard rockers that allow LaVette to fully stalk the stage and crush the crowd. Her version of Joy, by Lucinda Williams, is titanic, and then there's one of her own rare attempts at songwriting, Before The Money Came (The Battle Of Betty LaVette). As the set climaxes, LaVette attains a vibrating pitch that can rarely be held for so long, significantly bolstered by her gritty guitar twosome. A completely a capella encore adds another surprise, gripping the audience in an unbroken hush. It's completely staggering..!
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