I had never heard of Bettye LaVette until about four years ago. A friend had made me a mix CD to listen to on a road trip and on it he had included LaVette’s take on Aimee Mann’s “How Am I Different?” I was immediately intrigued by how her gritty, soulful voice had transformed one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite artists into something completely different. I was also a little ashamed that, as a soul/R&B/funk fan, I’d never heard of her before.
When I learned that LaVette was planning to release a record of covers of British classic rock songs, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, I was both excited and skeptical. I was excited because I had been looking forward to a new album from her, and this sounded like an interesting project. But I was a bit skeptical when I saw the track listing — it’s pretty Beatles heavy, with a track from Rubber Soul as well as solo songs from Paul, George and Ringo, and it also contains versions of two songs I’m not terribly interested in hearing covered again (Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues). But I figured if anyone could turn these songs on their ear, it’d be LaVette.
In the successful column, we have her gospel-infused take on the Beatles’ “The Word.” I imagine watching her perform this live with a full gospel choir — and that John Lennon would love every second of it.
I also really love her version of Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love.” Removing the synths and adding some soul makes Bettye’s version new and fresh. I imagine that Robert Plant, who is getting a lot of recognition these days for his blues/folk work with Alison Krauss, approves of LaVette’s reworking of the song, since he has asked her to be the opening act for dates on his tour this July.
Here she is performing the song in New York City earlier this week:
I also adore her take on the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” Her gutting performance of the song at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors was the spark that ignited this whole project and an extended version of that performance is included on the album as a bonus track.
Check out Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend as they watch her perform the song — allegedly, Townshend told her after the performance that she made him weep.
Another “interpretation” I enjoy is her take on “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Originally written for Nina Simone, the song was turned into a gritty, blues/rock number by the Animals and comes full circle when performed by Bettye. Her version sounds like what would happen if she and Tina Turner fronted Heart.
Other highlights include the slow, sultry affair that is her version on Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy”; her funky rendition of Derek and the Dominoes’ “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad”; and her unexpectedly poignant take on Traffic’s “No Time to Live.” I also found it refreshing that she didn’t take on a more obvious Rolling Stones track — “Salt of the Earth” is perfect for her and she does a great job with it.
While I think the rest of the “interpretations” on the album are lovely, I don’t find any of them groundbreaking. “Nights in White Satin” is nice — the strings are beautiful and there are some vocally impressive moments — but I didn’t really gravitate towards it; I’m actually kind of tired of it. And I found myself getting a little bored with her version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.”
LaVette’s vocals add a more soulful edge to “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me,” but the slower pace drags it down. The original isn’t really one of my favorites, and I feel like it’s been covered so many times before that I’d rather she’d have picked something else — I could see her killing something like “Grey Seal” or “The Bitch is Back.”
I’m happy that LaVette has emerged from relative obscurity and she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves as one of soul’s greatest voices. And while I think she does an incredible job interpreting other artists’ songs and making them her own, I would love to see her next album be one of original material — I think it’s time.