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

It Was 35 Years Ago…

A look back on Live Aid benefit concert – Part 2

Here’s Part 2 of my mini-series recalling musical highlights from the Live Aid concert that took place on July 13, 1985. Like in the first part, the footage in this post was all captured at Wembley Stadium in London, England. The next installment is going to feature clips from John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, the second stage of the music marathon.

One of Live Aid’s definitive moments was the performance by Queen. Freddie Mercury once again vividly illustrated he was a born live performer and showman, and the rest of the band was on fire as well. Here’s We Are the Champions, the closer of Queen’s mini set. Written by Mercury, the tune combined with We Will Rock You was the lead single of the band’s sixth studio album News of the World. Both appeared in October 1977, with the single predating the album by two weeks.

It kind of must have sucked having had to follow Freddie Mercury, especially after that performance. The Who, who had reunited for Live Aid following their breakup in December 1983, proofed they were up to challenge. Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle, together with Kenny Jones and John Bundrick on drums and keyboards, respectively, were in decent shape. Here’s the mighty Townshend-penned Love, Reign O’er Me from Quadrophenia, the sixth studio album by The Who released in October 1973. And, yep, the chap announcing them is Jack Nicholson, who I guess was so excited he literally read everything from a piece of paper. 🙂

Let’s wrap up this second part with some Elton John. Bennie and the Jets, composed by John with lyrics from Bernie Taupin, first appeared on his seventh studio album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that came out in October 1973. The song was also released separately as the record’s third single in February 1974. Nice performance by John who had staged a comeback in 1983 with his great album Too Low for Zero, though seeing him without flashy glasses is unusual.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

The Year That Was 2019

Highlights of my rock & roll journey during the past 12 months

It feels unreal to me Christmas and New Year’s are upon us again – not to mention a new decade! I still recall a conversation with a school friend when we were 12 years old. He and I imagined where we might be when the year 2000 comes. At the time, the turn of the century was still more than two decades out. It seemed so far away. Now, not only has 2000 come and go, but we’re 20 years down the road, baby – crazy how time flies!

Well, this post doesn’t span decades. The idea is much more moderate: Looking back at my personal music journey over the past 12 months, as documented by this blog. While to some extent it reflects what happened in music this year, it’s not a broad review piece. Since I mostly listen to ’60s and ’70s artists or new music they release, I couldn’t do a legitimate comprehensive look-back on 2019 in music.

In the past, I’ve said more than once most new music nowadays lacks true craftsmanship and sounds generic and soulless to me. And while I still largely ignore what dominates today’s charts, I’ve finally come to accept contemporary music isn’t inherently bad. It’s just different and I generally don’t like it. Here’s the good news: I don’t have to. There’s so much “old” music out there I’ve yet to discover, and while artists may retire or pass away, their music will stay. Forever. That’s the beauty of music. It means for those of us who dig it, rock & roll will never die! Okay, enough with the wise-cracking and on to some highlights of my music journey this year.

Concerts

As a retired band-turned-closet musician, live music remains the ultimate thrill to me. Yes, ticket prices continue to be outrageous for most top acts, and that’s not going to change. But this hasn’t deterred me yet from seeing artists I dig. However, it did require being more selective (for example, I skipped Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, since I had seen both in 2018) and oftentimes settling for cheaper seats.

My two concert highlights this year were The Rolling Stones at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. in early August and The Who at New York’s Madison Square Garden in May. I had seen both before, but since they are among my longtime favorite bands and in the twilight of their careers, I simply did not want to miss the opportunity. I’m glad I was able to catch both, especially The Who. At the time I bought my ticket, I had not realized this wasn’t a “regular” gig but The Who backed by a symphonic orchestra. Had I understood this, it may have deterred me. But the concept worked pretty well, so I’m happy I didn’t read the fine print! Here’s a clip from each show: Jumpin’ Jack Flash and the Love Reign O’er Me, two tunes that will never go out of style in my book!

I also saw various other great shows: Walter Trout (The Iridium, New York, April 9), Joe Jackson (State Theatre, New Jersey, New Brunswick, May 18), Govt’ Mule (The Stone Pony, Asbury Park, N.J., June 28), Southern Avenue (The Wonder Bar, Asbury Park, N.J., July 11) and Hall & Oates (Fairgrounds, Allentown, Pa.). I wouldn’t have gone to that last concert, had it not been for my wife. While I wouldn’t call myself a Hall & Oates fan, it was a great show.

As King/Emperor of Tribute Bands (blame Music Enthusiast for the title! 🙂 ), this concert section wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the many tribute shows that continued to attract me. I know some folks roll their eyes when they hear the word tribute band. I find nothing wrong listening to music I dig, especially when it’s faithfully captured. Among the many tribute concerts I saw, two stood out: Pink Floyd tribute Brit Floyd (Sands Bethlehem Event Center, Bethlehem, Pa., March 30) and the annual Rock The Farm Tribute Festival (Seaside Heights, N.J., September 28). Here’s a clip from the Brit Floyd gig: Comfortably Numb – epic!

And then there’s of course Woodstock’s 50th anniversary. I finally got to see the director’s cut of the documentary on the big screen. While I can’t deny 224 minutes is pretty massive, I enjoyed every minute of it. Here’s the main post I did to commemorate the festival. And here’s a clip of one of the most iconic rock performances of all time: Joe Cocker and With A Little Help From My Friends.

New Music

As stated above, for the most part, new music means new albums released by “old” artists I dig. As I looked back through my previous posts, I was surprised to find that I reviewed 22 new albums. Granted this number includes three live albums (The Doobie Brothers/Live From The Beacon Theatre, The Rolling Stones/Bridges To Bremen and Paul McCartney/Amoeba Gig) and an excellent posthumous compilation by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers (The Best Of Everything), which do not feature new music. Even if you exclude these, it still leaves you with 18 albums. This makes me wonder what I would do if I also paid more attention to contemporary artists. It pretty much would be impossible to review their new music as well, given I have a family and a full-time job – another good reason to focus on what I truly dig! 🙂

Albums by “old hands” I’d like to call out are The Who (WHO), Booker T. (Note By Note), Neil Young (Colorado), Ringo Starr (What’s My Name), Santana (Africa Speaks),  Little Steven And The Disciples of Soul (Summer of Sorcery), Joe Jackson Fool and Sheryl Crow (Threads). One artist who seems to be missing here is Bruce Springsteen and Western Stars. While I dig Springsteen and don’t think it’s a bad record, it just doesn’t speak to me the way other music by The Boss does, so I ended up skipping a review. Crow said Threads is her final full-fledged release, explaining in the age of streaming music, most people make playlists and no longer listen to entire albums. Boy, this statement really reflects how much listening habits and the music business have changed! Here’s Live Wire, a nice bluesy tune co-written by Crow and Jeff Trott and featuring Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples.

There were also some new blues releases I enjoyed by both older and younger artists, including Walter Trout (Blues Survivor), Jimmie Vaughan (Baby, Please Come Home), Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band (The Traveler) and “wunderkind” Jontavious Willis (Spectacular Class), as Taj Mahal has called him. How about some music from Willis’ sophomore album? By the way, it was executive-produced by Mahal. Here’s opener Low Down Ways.

I also would like to call out albums from three other contemporary artists: Rick Barth (Fade), SUSTO (Ever Since I Lost My Mind) and Southern Avenue (Keep On). If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, you may recall Southern Avenue is one of the very few young bands I truly dig. I just love how these guys blend blues, soul and R&B, and the vocals are just killer! Here’s the title track from the above album, which is their second one. The tune was co-written by guitarist Ori Naftaly, lead vocalist Tierini Jackson and producer Johnny Black. There’s just something about Southern Avenue’s sound I find really seductive.

Coolest Clip

I think I came across a number of great clips I posted throughout the year. One of the best has to be this footage of The Who performing Won’t Get Fooled Again. That’s the raw power of rock & roll! It was filmed on May 25, 1978 at England’s Shepperton Studios, about 20 miles southwest of London, for the closing sequence of the band’s rockumentary The Kids Are Alright. And then, there’s this very different but equally mesmerizing clip: a live demonstration of the Hammond B3 by the amazing Booker T. Jones. To really get excited about it, I realize maybe you need to be a musician.

And Finally…

2019 marks the third full year I’m doing this blog. While I really wanted to start writing about my passion, I wasn’t sure whether I could keep it going when I set out in June 2016. Due to personal reasons, I had to slow down a bit during the past couple of months. But music and writing about artists I dig is therapy to me, so I have every intention to continue and hopefully pick up the pace again. When starting the blog, I also felt I’m doing this for myself first and foremost, not to become some “Internet sensation.” While that is still the case, I can’t deny it’s great to see visitors and that traffic has trended up nicely. Of course, growing from tiny numbers is relatively easy, and there is realistically no way I can keep up the current momentum.

Blog Stats

I’m leaving you with a clip from my most popular post this year (measured by total views): The above mentioned Rock The Farm Tribute Festival. The positive reception made me really happy, since it’s great music for a great cause. Here’s It’s Late by Canadian Queen tribute Simply Queen.

I’d like to thank all visitors for reading and especially those who go through the trouble of leaving comments. I always love getting feedback, even if I may not agree with everything folks say. But that’s cool.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas Emoji

Sources: Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube