Bettye LaVette seems unstoppable, even at age 72. The soul veteran celebrated the release of her tenth album, Things Have Changed at City Winery on April 6 to a sold-out crowd. Her latest record features 12 Bob Dylan songs dialed up and down to fit her signature soulful rasp.
Opening for LaVette was the exquisitely tight Soul and R&B nine-piece headed by original Blues Brother, Bobby Harden. Together as Bobby Harden and Soul Purpose, the group whipped through a series of originals, and a cover of soul standard “You Left The Water Running” which Harden fronted on the recent Blues Brothers album, The Last Shade Of Blue Before Black.
LaVette strutted on stage in all black – including leather-looking pants and sunglasses – a tough exterior for a woman whose heart and humor regularly cut through the music. Where a lesser artist might put less behind an album of covers, LaVette ratchets up each song’s intensity and adds a performative spin to Dylan’s poetry.
“This is the most daring thing I’ve ever done, because I had to take the words out of a crazy man’s mouth,” LaVette told the crowd, chuckling. “Bob fusses about everything like an old woman…I guess this is the finish of Bob’s arguments.”
LaVette and her band—a tight foursome with Dylan guitarist Brett Lucas, bassist James Simonson, Darryl Pierce on drums and keyboardist Evan Mercier who easily transitioned from blues to rock and even a slight country twang—opened the show with the title track, before grooving through “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Seeing The Real You” with humor, fierceness and a couple minor slip ups.
“This is something a 72-year-old shouldn’t do- learn 12 popular tunes! ‘Cause I can’t remember shit, then they give me the lyrics and I can’t read shit. But I got new glasses,” she exclaimed.
One of the most powerful songs of the night was “Mama, You Been On My Mind,” a song that brought LaVette (and some members of the audience) to tears for its earnest, soft and pleading tribute. While Dylan wrote the song “about a woman he was once with or once wanted to be with,” LaVette dedicated the song to her mother.
After a show of emotional highs and lows, LaVette sang one original for her encore, “Before the Money Came” — a fitting reminder that LaVette has been hard at work long before Dylan and sold-out shows.