What I’ve Been Listening to: Bettye LaVette/Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook

One thing I love about music blogging is how much I learn about artists I didn’t know or only had heard of by name. Oftentimes, I find myself stepping through one door only to find many others I’ve yet to open. Frankly, I probably would have run out of ideas a long time ago, if it were any different! Plus, I’d get bored if I only wrote about music and artists I know.

The latest example is Bettye LaVette, a versatile vocalist who has been active since 1962. I included her in two previous posts, most recently on Saturday in a piece about artists who have covered songs by The Rolling Stones. LaVette’s great rendition of Salt of the Earth led me to take a closer look at the album that includes her version of the tune. I was quickly intrigued by what else I found on Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which was released in May 2010. Her soulful, at times somewhat fragile voice reminds me a bit of Tina Turner and is right up my alley.

Bettye LaVette - Soulful Detroit

While LaVette enjoyed some chart success early in her career, for decades, she was more of a cult figure in soul circles. At least in part that was due to bad luck with record labels. After LaVette recorded what was supposed to become her first full-length album Child of the Seventies, Atlantic Records decided not to move forward with the project, apparently without giving her any explanation. In 1982, Motown’s Lee Young, Sr. signed LaVette to the storied label, which led to the recording of her first released album Tell Me Lie. However, following a corporate shake-up, Young was removed, the label never promoted LaVette’s record, and it failed to chart.

Fast-forward to 2000 when a French collector and label owner called Gilles Petard discovered the tapes for the aforementioned Child of the Seventies album in Atlantic Records’ vaults. He liked what he heard, licensed the tracks and released them under the title Souvenirs in France on his Art & Soul label. Around the same time, Let Me Down Easy – In Concert, a live recording of LaVette in the Netherlands, appeared on the Dutch label Munich. The two near-simultaneous releases created new interest in LaVette as a recording artist and resulted in a contract with label Blues Express.

Bettye LaVette Interview - Blues Matters Magazine

In January 2003, LaVette released A Woman Like Me, only her third full-length studio album. It won the W.C. Handy Award in 2004 for Comeback Blues Album of the Year and the Living Blues critic pick as Best Female Blues Artist of 2004. LaVette’s recording career was finally going somewhere. She has since released eight other studio albums and won additional awards, including a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation (2006), Blues Music Award for Best Contemporary Female Blues Singer (2008), Distinguished Achievement Award from The Detroit Music Society (2015) and Blues Music Award for Best Soul Blues Female Artist from The Blues Foundation (2016). LaVette is also in the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame and has been nominated three times for a Grammy.

LaVette is an unusual artist. According to her website, she is no mere singer. She is not a song writer, nor is she a “cover” artist. She is an interpreter of the highest order. Bettye is one of very few of her contemporaries who were recording during the birth of soul music in the 60s and is still creating vital recordings today. This certainly becomes obvious when listening to Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which brings me back to the album. Let’s get to some intriguing interpretations!

The opener is a funky version of The Word by The Beatles. While the John LennonPaul McCartney co-write, which was included on the Rubber Soul album from December 1965, is barely recognizable, I find LaVette’s take pretty cool. It’s got a bit of a James Brown vibe, and I can almost hear his “uhs” in the background.

How about some Led Zeppelin reimagined? Here’s All My Love, a song I’ve always dug. Co-written by John Paul Jones and Robert Plant, the tune first appeared on Zep’s eighth and final studio album In Through the Out Door released in August 1979. Check this out – damn!

Let’s move on to Pink Floyd and Wish You Were Here. The title track of their ninth studio album from September 1975 was co-written by David Gilmour and Roger Waters. Who would have thought a Floyd track could ever sound so soulful!

Nights in White Satin is one of my favorite songs by The Moody Blues. Written by Justin Hayward, the track appeared on Days of Future Passed, one of the most beautiful concept albums of the ’60s. Here it is in Bettye LaVette style – amazing!

Let’s do two more. First up is another great funky rendition: Why Does Love Got to be So Sad by Derek and the Dominoes. Co-written by Eric Clapton and Bobby Whitlock, the tune appeared on the band’s sole studio album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs from November 1970. Groovy!

Last but not least, here is the closer Love, Reign O’er Me, a highlight on the album. It captures LaVette’s unedited live performance during the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2008 in tribute to Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, who were among the honorees that year. Townshend wrote the tune for The Who’s sixth studio album Quadrophenia that came out in October 1973. Here’s the actual footage from the Kennedy Center. Messrs. Daltrey and Townshend almost seem to have a Led Zeppelin moment. Check this out. This is friggin’ intense!

Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which appeared on U.S. label Anti-, was co-produced by Rob Mathes, Michael Stevens and LaVette. It reached no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard’s Top Blues Albums, staying in that chart for 39 weeks. The album also enjoyed some mainstream success in the U.S., climbing to no. 56 on the Billboard 200. Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook became one of the three aforementioned Grammy nominations for LaVette.

Thanks to great images on Discogs, I was able to look at the album’s liner notes that reveal some interesting things about LaVette’s approach to interpretations. “I never think of a song as a record,” she is quoted. “I think of songs as songs. I don’t think of a Rolling Stones recording. I think of the Rolling Stones singing this song and now I’m going to sing it. That helps me tremendously…There’s no process of ‘how can I make this different.’ I hear it immediately differently. It’s very hard for another singer to satisfy me. No matter where a singer went with the vocal, if I can think of somewhere else to go, then wherever they went no longer interests me.”

In addition to the vocal approach, LaVette also took artistic freedom with the lyrics, which she changed significantly on a number of songs. “I think the most difficult thing about putting the album together was that many of the words didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “These songs belong to white fans who are now in their fifties…The biggest hang-up was I didn’t want to disrespect them because I knew that there are people who have altars built to many of these songs…When I got into them I realized there were things worth saying but I had to make them things I could sing about.”

So what do some of the artists who wrote the original songs think of LaVette’s renditions? Following are some quotes from a sticker on the CD’s jewel case. Again, I have Discogs to thank for featuring some great images. “A great record. Put me in the Bettye LaVette fan club” (Keith Richards). “Bettye is reinventing and reclaiming a soul singing tradition all at once” (Pete Townshend). “Bettye is blessed with an instantly recognizable voice full of power & emotion” (Steve Winwood). “Bettye has recorded an amazing version of ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me'” (Elton John).

Sources: Wikipedia; Discogs; YouTube

Another Rocking Thanksgiving Weekend With Music By Led Zeppelin

Zep tribute Get The Led Out Rocks Asbury Park’s Historic Paramount Theatre

Sometimes spontaneous decisions are the best and this one certainly qualifies. Almost exactly one year ago, on November 22, 2017, I had seen Get The Led The Out (GTLO) for the first time. You can read about it here. Last night I saw them again, at the historic Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, N.J. I only had found out about the gig Friday and got a ticket yesterday afternoon. There weren’t many left, and I was fortunate to get a decent seat at a pretty reasonable price. This six-piece Led Zeppelin tribute band and their guest backing vocalist once again put in an incredible performance, so it was definitely worth it!

‘Wait a moment,’ you might say, ‘Led Zeppelin were only four guys, so how come there are six guys and they call themselves a Zep tribute?’ Well, as lead vocalist Paul Sinclair  explained again to the newbies in the audience last night, when the guy singing Robert Plant looks like Howard Stern while one of the guitarists actually resembles Plant, you obviously know that GTLO isn’t trying to impersonate Zep. Instead, they are all about capturing their music – more precisely, the British rockers’ recorded music. And with all the overdubbing and other techniques Zep applied in the studio, you simply cannot replicate that sound live with just four guys.

GTLO Band Members
GTLO (clockwise from upper row left): Paul Sinclair (lead vocals, harmonica), Paul Hammond (electric & acoustic guitars, mandolin), Jim Marchiano (electric & acoustic guitars, vocals), Phil D’Agostino (bass, vocals), Adam Ferraioli (drums, percussion), Eddie Kurek (keyboards, electric & acoustic guitars, vocals, percussion) and Diana DeSantis (guest vocalist on Battle Of Evermore)

I didn’t capture any music last night except for one tune I simply couldn’t resist recording. Instead, I decided to simply enjoy the show and forget about my stupid smartphone. Yet after almost each song, I kind of wished I had recorded it – especially the acoustic-oriented renditions that were just unbelievably good! Well, I didn’t, so to capture the music of last night’s show I had to resort to what I did in the past before starting to record my own concert footage: Rely on YouTube videos taken by others.

I’d like to kick things off with one of my favorite Led Zeppelin tunes: All My Love. Credited to John Paul Jones and Robert Plant, it was included on Zep’s eighth studio album In Through The Out Door from August 1979, the final record prior to John Bonham’s untimely death in September 1980 in the age of 32. I just totally dig the keyboard part on this track.

I already mentioned the acoustic songs, which to me were the standouts. Here’s Going To California. Co-written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, this gem appeared on Led Zeppelin IV from December 1971.

Here’s another acoustic Zep diamond, from Houses Of The Holy, the band’s fifth studio album released in March 1973: The Rain Song, which was also co-written by Plant and Page.

The last song I’d like to call out was the first encore and the only tune I recorded myself: Stairway To Heaven. I just couldn’t resist! Yet another Page-Plant co-write, the track also appeared on Led Zeppelin IV.

GTLO, which are from Philly and were founded in 2003, currently includes the following members: Paul Sinclair (lead vocals, harmonica), Paul Hammond (electric & acoustic guitars, mandolin), Jim Marchiano (electric & acoustic guitars, vocals), Phil D’Agostino (bass, vocals), Adam Ferraioli (drums, percussion) and Eddie Kurek (keyboards, electric & acoustic guitars, vocals, percussion). In addition, Diana DeSantis performs as a guest vocalist on The Battle Of Evermore.

The band has a pretty packed schedule that currently has dates until late April 2019. Upcoming shows include Harrisburg, Pa. (Nov 29 & 30 and Dec 1), Philadelphia (Dec 7) and Jim Thorpe, Pa. (Dec 28 & 29).

Sources: GTLO website and Facebook page, Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Led Zeppelin/In Through The Out Door

Led Zeppelin’s 8th studio album is band’s most unusual masterpiece

In Through The Out Door is an unusual Led Zeppelin album. When it was released in August 1979, critics and fans were divided. Some felt the synthesizer-driven sound on tracks like All Of My Love and Carouselambra was forward-thinking, while others criticized the band for having abandoned its hard-charging rock sound. To me Zep’s final record prior to drummer John Bonham’s death shows a willingness to push into new sonic territory rather than simply repeating the tried and true. That’s what great bands do!

When looking at In Through The Out Door, it is also important to understand the challenging circumstances under which the record came together. A serious car accident in August 1975 had left Robert Plant unable to tour for the remainder of the year and in 1976. This had made the recording of In Through The Out Door predecessor Presence very difficult. Jimmy Page had started a heroin habit during the studio sessions. The band’s concert film The Song Remains The Same had received a lukewarm reception upon its release in October 1976. In late July 1977, Plant’s five-year-old son Karac had died from a stomach virus. Last but not least, Bonham was struggling with alcoholism.

In Through The Out Door Album Jackets
In Through The Out Door was originally available in six different album jackets

With Page and Bonham frequently not showing up in time at the recording studio, John Paul Jones and Plant took a much bigger role than on previous Zep albums, while Page’s and Bonham’s relative influence was diminished. Jones, who had obtained a Yamaha GX-1 polyphonic synthesizer from Keith Emerson, ended up getting writing credits on all except one track: Hot Dog, a rockabilly song co-written by Plant and Page. Bonham did not receive writing credits for any of the album’s seven tunes, though he was included in the credits for Darlene, which was recorded at the time but not released until 1982’s Coda, the band’s final album.

During a December 2008 interview with Uncut, Jones put the making of In Through The Out Door this way: “I had this big new keyboard. And Robert and I just got to rehearsals early, basically, and as I said… [pause] actually, I’m not sure if I did say it in this interview… [laughs]… With Zeppelin writing, if you came up with good things, and everybody agreed that they were good things, they got used. There was no formula for writing. So Robert and I, by the time everybody turned up for rehearsals, we’d written three or four songs. So we started rehearsing those immediately, because they were something to be getting on with.”

In Through The Out Door opens with In The Evening, a track that was largely written by Jones, though it is credited to him, Plant and Page. The tune introduces the fabulous sound of the GX-1, the synthesizer that is omnipresent on the album.

Fool In The Rain is an unusual track, which features a Latin samba-like section in the middle. Co-written by Jones, Plant and Page, it was also released separately and became the band’s last single.

Carouselambra, with its synthesizer-dominated sound and Page’s guitar mostly feeling like an afterthought, is Led Zeppelin’s most radical sonic departure from their previous albums. Clocking in at a mighty 10:34 minutes, it is also the band’s second longest studio recording; only In My Time Of Dying from 1975’s Physical Graffiti was longer with 11:06 minutes.

The last tune I’d like to call out is All My Love, a rock ballad in honor of Plant’s above mentioned son. Co-written by Jones and Plant, I think it is the album’s highlight. In addition to Plant’s strong vocals, I really dig the sound of Jones’ synthesizer.

According to Wikipedia, Plant, Page and Bonham expressed some reservations about the album following its release. In a December 1990 story in UK music magazine Q, Plant reportedly said: “In Through The Out Door wasn’t the greatest thing in the world, but at least we were trying to vary what we were doing, for our own integrity’s sake…In ’77, when I lost my boy, I didn’t really want to go swinging around—”Hey hey mama say the way you move” didn’t really have a great deal of import any more.”

During a 1998 interview with Guitar World, Page reportedly commented, “We [Bonham and Page] both felt that In Through The Out Door was a little soft. I was not really very keen on “All My Love.” I was a little worried about the chorus. I could just imagine people doing the wave and all of that. And I thought, ‘That is not us. That is not us.’ In its place it was fine, but I would not have wanted to pursue that direction in the future.”

In Through The Out Door was recorded between November and December 1978 at ABBA’s Polar Studios in Stockholm, Sweden – almost one year prior to its actual release by Swan Song Records. Like all of Led Zeppelin’s albums, it was produced by Page. Despite its mixed reception, the record peaked at no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and is said to have sold 1.7 million copies only within days after its release. The album also topped albums charts in the UK, Canada and New Zealand. In November 1997, it was certified six times Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Sources: Wikipedia, Uncut, YouTube