Forces of nature

Bettye LaVette headlines a night of blues to be reckoned with

Ms. Bettye LaVette singing it like it is.

Ms. Bettye LaVette singing it like it is.

Katrina, move over. Rita, stand down. Mighty female voices triangulate to land in our levee city on October 16. In capital letters, this is a Diva Ground Zero Happening made manifest.

The brilliant Bettye LaVette, arguably the hottest soul singer in the world right now, is cresting on a long-deserved, international wave decades in the making with the September 26 release of her new album, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. Los Angeles’ Roach, the explosive young lioness who wowed the crowds at both the Sacramento Heritage Festival and the San Francisco Blues Festival this year, brings her precision band Cafe R&B. And in a wonderful delta-to-delta grasp, the bold New Orleans blues shouter Marva Wright, who has lost her home and city to Katrina, is flying cross-country from a temporary home in Baltimore to complete this wise-blood triumvirate.

2005 is clearly LaVette’s time to shine, and like Solomon Burke’s “sudden” rise to stardom three years ago, it is long overdue. “This year has been the whirlwind of the whole 44 years in this business,” she admonished, but with a bubbling laugh. What lies behind LaVette’s new joy is raw and rich, a despair met by defiance. At 59, LaVette has persevered.

“Most of what has happened in my career is unusual, different than many women,” she explained. “I didn’t quit and get a day job, no man beat me up, I haven’t joined a church, I didn’t live in a car, I didn’t get strung out on drugs—none of that. That is why it was so hard to me to choose these songs by women,” she reflected. But I’ve Got My Own Hell is a confessional manifesto, a post-apocalyptic Bridget Jones’s Diary. With Lucinda Williams, Fiona Apple, Joan Armatrading, Aimee Mann, Toni Brown, Roseanne Cash, Dolly Parton and Sinead O’Connor supplying the text, LaVette works through the collective pain of their songs and transcends.

“I never think of myself as a recording artist,” she explained. “I think of myself as an entertainer, and that was not out of any brilliance; it was out of being forced to make my show good. I had no hit records to lean on. So I had to physically try and make the audiences remember me.” Indeed. Lithe, incendiary, LaVette prowls the stage, knots up and dances it out. Like Judy Garland and Eartha Kitt, she becomes the song.

In 1962, at age 16, LaVette scored a Detroit hit: the tantalizing single “My Man, He’s A Lovin’ Man.” Atlantic Records grabbed the song and took it national. A series of singles followed, including her gutsy signature showstopper “Let Me Down Easy.” But when her debut album, Child of the Seventies, cut in the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, was inexplicably shelved by Atlantic in 1972, LaVette took it on the chin. What followed was three decades of singles on nine labels, plus six years on Broadway starring with Cab Calloway in Bubblin’ Brown Sugar, and European clubs with fans who never forgot her.

Then in 2000, French soul collector Gilles Petard managed to Sherlock Holmes his way into the Atlantic vaults where the company brass had said LaVette’s master of Child had been destroyed in a fire. He found the tapes and released the album as Souvenirs on his own Art & Soul label. A live Dutch recording coordinated for simultaneous release was followed by 2003’s A Woman Like Me, which won the coveted W.C. Handy award for “Comeback Blues Album of the Year” and Living Blues magazine’s award for “Best Female Blues Artist of 2004.”

“I must choose my songs very carefully because my shows are conversational. These are things that I would actually moan or holler or say to you if you knew me,” she revealed. “I’m looking at people dead in the face—I have to say something that I really believe.”

When told of the plight of Wright in the wake of Katrina, LaVette was shocked. “How can you comfort? It sounds so simplistic, but I would say to her, ‘This too shall pass. And so I rise.’” She paused before adding, “Put all your pain in a song and let the audience cry it out with you.”