Now, if you’re asking who Bettye LaVette is, you’re not alone. In fact, LaVette joked frequently during her show, part of the UCSB Arts & Lectures series, about her unknown status. The feisty sexagenarian joked several times that this was her “Who the Hell Is She?” tour, and that she was “experiencing overnight success after 50 years in the recording business.”
In fact, LaVette may be one of the best and most resilient soul and blues singing divas in modern American blues history. LaVette recorded her first hit song, “My Man-He’s a Lovin Man” at age 16, and the song became a top 10 R&B hit in 1962. But it was her next hit in 1965, “Let Me Down Easy,” that defined her as a world-class blues singer and led to her inclusion in the James Brown Review band.
Her rendition of the song on the main stage at the massive Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 2009 wowed the crowd. She won many new fans that day among the young festival-goers who had never heard her name before.
At her Santa Barbara concert Sunday night, the singer won over yet another crowd with her dynamic blues-drenched laments. Her show included a diverse mix of cover songs from many musical genres, including a George Jones country classic that she recorded with the Drive-By Truckers in 2007. She also played several cover songs form her 2005 recording, “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise.”
The Grammy-nominated album, credited with bringing her name back to the forefront of the pop music world, is composed entirely of songs written by women. She also played several well-known covers from her most recent work, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook.
Throughout her set, LaVette would pause to explain the rich history and background of the songs she would sing. With this selection of songs she explained her particular love/hate relationship with the genre. She explained how the 1960s British Invasion wiped most black pop artists off the radio. But in subsequent years, the British pop masters embraced her as the roots and inspiration for their music. Her band of accomplished veteran musicians really shined during her renditions of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” and Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy.”
They also played a phenomenal interpretation of one of the most sophisticated songs of the hard-rock genre, The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” LaVette’s interpretation of Roger Daltrey’s daunting vocal on that track was nothing short of phenomenal and brought a standing ovation from the crowd. Of course, the master singer-songwriter played many of her own songs, written over her half-century of recordings.
She ended with an a cappella version of a blues tune that brought tears to many in the audience, and the “Who the Hell Is She?” tour won over yet another audience of fans old and new.