By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
Bettye LaVette didn’t write any of the songs she performed for 90 minutes in front of a sold-out crowd Saturday at Knuckleheads, but she owned every single one of them. It’s hard to imagine the original songwriters — including John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Lucinda Williams and Cee-Lo Green— investing more emotion than LaVette poured into her performance. Her voice ached and cracked with every syllable and her arms and legs writhed on every word.
Chatty and playful, LaVette told the audience the biggest reason why she covered Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” was so her grandchildren would think she was hip. By stripping the song of its kinetic energy and slowing the tempo way down, LaVette turned the ubiquitous hit into a cathartic confession. It also illustrated why she’d rather be called a “song stylist” than a singer.
At any other concert LaVette’s mournful, pleading reading of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” would have been the showstopper. Saturday night it was only one of many powerful moments that earned pin-drop silence from the crowd. Other stand-out moments included “The Forecast” and the haunting country ballads “Choices” and “The More I Search (The More I Die).”
While many of the top performances were quiet, LaVette and her four-piece band did a great job of varying tempos and textures. A cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” was bathed in a swampy funk. “I’m Tired” was wrapped in a twisted country-rock guitar riff. The band’s best moment came on “Your Turn to Cry” when it successfully re-reated the Muscle Shoals production from LaVette’s shelved, would-be 1972 recording.
LaVette discussed those disappointments frankly, sharing how much she wanted to be on American Bandstand and how crushed she was when the show’s producers found her debut 1962 single “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man” too suggestive. She said that much of her life had been pretty good, except that she was continually denied her biggest joy, the opportunity to sing.
The happiness LaVette has found over the past 10 years when her career finally started taking off was evident in the night’s final songs, “Close As I’ll Get to Heaven” and an a capella reading of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”
Setlist: The Word; The Forecast; Take Me Like I Am; Choices; Joy; Your Turn to Cry; They Call It Love; Crazy; My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man; The More I Search (The More I Die); I’m Tired; Love Reign O’er Me; Close As I’ll Get to Heaven; I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.