Tuesday, May 24
Better than: Twelve o’clocktails.
What’s the difference between a cabaret and a nightclub? Not so long ago, the boundaries, governed by repertoire and acoustic instrumentation (give or take the soothing runs of a stray swizzle-stick electric guitar), were pretty clear. In the cabarets, the American Songbook and its rapturous adherents held sway; nightclub owners–who, in New Yorker parlance, “lead complicated lives”–not only welcomed but encouraged musicians to play whatever the hell they wanted to.
Yet as veteran soul singer Bettye LaVette’s four-piece blues band put the hammer down to open the first set of her two-week engagement at the Cafe Carlyle, the lines of demarcation were somewhat blurrier. It’s interesting to think of, say, the Drive-By Truckers playing under the Carlyle’s soft lights, especially since the first words LaVette uttered upon hitting the stage were from “I Still Want To Be Your Baby (Take Me Like I Am),” a piece she recorded with them on 2007’s Scene Of The Crime. The lyric, “I been this way too long to change now,” was more mission statement than act of defiance, though. Superbly anchored by the rhythm section (Charles Bartels, bass; Darrell Pierce, drums) while buoyed by Brett Lucas’s aqueous slide guitar, it cast LaVette’s lively, soulful blues as music of the same vintage as some of the cabaret scene’s Broadway chestnuts, despite its scarcity in those environs.
Of course, the Carlyle engagement also serves as another triumph for LaVette, who in the past eight years has made up for 40 years of lost time in the music business. She’s seen an almost steady stream of hosannas, touring, inaugurals and the like recently, but if LaVette’s humor-filled slant on decades of hard luck is now part of her act, what sells it is her unmatched skill as an interpreter–what used to be called a song stylist. Whether she’s jamming Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” or the Rolling Stones’ “Salt Of The Earth,” no one worries a lyric quite like she does; her raspy delivery pushes, bends, repeats a phrase until its meaning is etched on the listener’s psyche. The awe of cognition was palpable in the room many times last night, but particularly during the one-two punch of Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold” and George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity.” Despite their long histories, she made the pieces sound as if they’d been written with her in mind.
Perhaps it was the surroundings, but during the show it crossed my mind that LaVette might be the blues equivalent of musical-theater grande dame Elaine Stritch, a Carlyle Hotel resident who has brought several one-woman shows to the cafe since her Tony-Award winning hit on Broadway in 2002. The similarities, from the cigarettes-and-whiskey vocal qualities to the hard living, are striking. Much like Stritch, LaVette has outlasted most of the elite showbiz company she drank under the table as a comer in her native Detroit, and at 63, she still exudes sexiness without much effort. There’s even a tiny bit of Broadway in LaVette’s resume; back in the ’70s, she did a stint in Bubbling Brown Sugar. Inasmuch as cabaret shows need narratives, her career’s early setbacks would seem to provide a compelling one.
But there’s one salient difference: Stritch’s schtick relies on a history of measurable commercial success, which allows her to regale the crowd with potentially titillating details about iconic figures like Noël Coward. In contrast, LaVette has often spoken in interviews of debauching with Motown’s finest, but she rarely gives details. There’s no kiss and tell, just great music–and it’s great enough to fuel her well-deserved comeback.
Critical bias: I’ve been pulling for her since 2003’s A Woman Like Me.
Overheard: “You think it might be time they found a different doctor?”
Random notebook dump: The sound is hard to balance on the side of the room where the guitarist and drummer are.
I Still Want To Be Your Baby (Take Me As I Am)
They Call It Love
Heart Of Gold
Isn’t It A Pity
Down To Zero
Your Turn To Cry
Just Say So
No Time To Live
It Don’t Come Easy
Talking Old Soldiers
Salt Of The Earth
Love Reign O’er Me
Close As I’ll Get To Heaven
I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise
Sleep To Dream
I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got