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 ‚Äď 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. ūüôā

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 Who Rock New York, Backed By Symphonic Orchestra

Singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson opens with captivating set

Last year, I read several stories about¬†Roger Daltrey¬†being pretty candid about aging, saying he’d stop performing if he realized his voice was no longer up to par. While other music artists haven’t followed through on similar retirement talk and The Who previously suggested their 50th anniversary tour could be their last, Daltrey’s above comments felt genuine to me. When I learned about¬†Moving On! tour, I got a ticket right away, thinking this may well be my third and last time to see one of my favorite British bands. But there was one detail that I somehow had completely missed. Apart from traditional touring musicians, Moving On! features local symphonic orchestras backing Daltrey and Pete Townshend. Frankly, I’m not sure I would have jumped to get a ticket, had I known that.

In general, the thought of combining a rock band with a symphonic orchestra gives me mixed feelings. One can easily picture that the former gets drowned out by the latter or that the music becomes overly massive and feels overproduced. On the other hand, The Who are known for a grandiose sound. So did the combination work Monday night at¬†Madison Square Garden¬†in New York City? For the most part it did for me, so my initial ignorance about the details of the tour wasn’t a bad thing after all.

Roger Daltrey & Pete Townshend

Before getting to The Who, I’d like to say a few words about New York singer-songwriter¬†Leslie Mendelson, who performed a captivating opening set. In 2009, following the release of her second album Swan Feathers, Mendelson was compared to¬†Carole King and Rickie Lee Jones, and her record was nominated for a Grammy. Then a series of setbacks stopped her upward trajectory, but things seem to look more promising again for Mendelson these days. A new album, If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…, is almost done. She’s currently raising money through Kickstarter to support promotion for a planned autumn release.

Monday night, Mendelson was accompanied by her longtime collaborator Steve McEwan, a British songwriter and musician, who played a vintage-looking electric guitar and provided backing vocals. Since I wanted to conserve my aging smartphone battery, unfortunately, I didn’t take any footage, but here’s a clip of The Hardest Part, a single from the new record, captured last December at a much smaller venue. The guy in the clip is McEwan. I’m pretty impressed with Mendelson and plan to do a separate post on her in the near future.

After a short intermission it was time for The Who! The first section of their show was with orchestra and mostly focused on songs from Tommy, The Who’s first rock opera from May 1969 – an appropriate choice, as the album nears its 50th anniversary of release on May 23. It started with the record’s first five tracks:¬†Overture, It’s A Boy, 1921, Amazing Journey and Sparks. This was followed by Pinball Wizard and We’re Not Gonna Take It.¬† The remainder of the first section featured tunes from various other albums, including Who Are You (Who Are You, 1978), Eminence Front (It’s Hard, 1982),¬† Imagine A Man (The Who By Numbers, 1975) and the non-album single Join Together (1972). Here’s We’re Not Gonna Take It, the final track from Tommy, which like most Who songs was written by Townshend.

The middle section of the concert featured The Who only. Daltrey jokingly pointed out that union rules required the orchestra to take a break and now it was only the band, “so we can fuck up things even more.” The section consisted of five songs: Non-album single Substitute (1966), I Can See For Miles (The Who Sell Out, 1967),¬† Won’t Get Fooled Again¬†and Behind Blue Eyes (both Who’s Next, 1971) and Tea & Theatre (Endless Wire, 2006). Here is I Can See For Miles.

Perhaps the highlight of the section was an acoustic rendition of Won’t Get Fooled Again. Unfortunately, I didn’t capture it, in part to conserve battery, but here’s a clip from the tour opener in Madison, Wis. Even though the camera person was much closer to the stage than I was, the MSG performance felt more dynamic, so I feel the footage doesn’t do it full justice. Or maybe it was the excitement of the moment!

The third and last section of the show, which saw the return of the orchestra, almost entirely focused on Quadrophenia. The Who’s second rock opera perhaps is the album that best lends itself to the use of symphonic orchestration.¬†It’s the band’s only record that was entirely composed by Pete Townshend. Here’s section opener The Real Me, one of favorite Who tunes.

Other tracks from Quadrophenia included I’m One, The Punk And The Godfather, 5:15, Drowned, The Rock and the mighty Love, Reign O’er Me. Of course, I couldn’t resist recording the last track, so here it is.

By the time I had Love, Reign O’er Me in the can, my phone battery was on life support, so I couldn’t capture the show’s finale, Baba O’Riley, another tune from the Who’s Next album. Luckily somebody else who was there did, so I’m borrowing their clip – thanks, “ForgottenNYC”! Check out the solo by amazing lead violonist Katie Jacoby, which starts at around 3:40 min – that woman stole the show from Townshend, at least temporarily!

Monday night saw Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend in excellent shape. Daltrey still commands the stage, singing with a strong voice and swinging his microphone like a mad man, while Townshend continues to be a kickass windmilling rock guitarist. One could almost forget these guys are in their mid-70s! I think they also deserve credit for continuing to push the envelope at this stage in their careers, when they could have played it safe instead of bringing in a symphonic orchestra. The fans including myself would have been perfectly happy with a “regular” performance.

I must also mention the great backing band: Simon Townshend (guitar, mandolin, backing vocals), Pete’s younger brother; Zak Starkey (drums), son of Ringo Starr, who has been The Who’s touring drummer since 1996; Loren Gold (keyboards, backing vocals), and one of the standouts in addition to Jacoby; and Jon Button (bass).

Upcoming dates for the Moving On! tour include Noblesville, Ind (May 18); Tinley Park, Ill (May 21); St. Louis (May 23); Philadelphia (May 25); and Detroit (May 28). The full schedule is available here.

Sources: Wikipedia, setlist.fm, Leslie Mendelson website, The Who website, YouTube

The Who Are Coming To Town And The Real Me Is In

North American Moving On! Tour to feature band with symphonic orchestras

When The Who came to the U.S. the previous time in 2017, I was really tempted to see them again. After all, they remain my favorite ’60s British Invasion band next to¬†The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. I didn’t and then sort of regretted it. Should have, could have – well, not this time, especially given this could well be The Who’s last big tour. Plus, three make a charm!

On Monday, Roger Daltrey and his longtime partner in crime¬†Pete Townshend announced Moving On!, a 29-date North American tour, and a new studio album to be released “later this year” – their first of original material in 13 years. Is it going to be called Moving On!? At this time, one can only speculate, since the announcement didn’t say anything else.

thewho_moving on!

Perhaps Daltrey and Townshend are taking a page from the playbook of Paul McCartney. Last year, Sir Paul showed the music world how to create anticipation ahead of the release of his most recent studio album Egypt Station. From posting visual clues on his Instagram to telling Jimmy Fallon about a concert in New York at an undisclosed location to coincide with the release,¬†saying it would be big and cheerfully reminding the audience of the album’s title, Macca masterfully executed a few tricks to create buzz.

You could argue there’s something odd about a man, who by the time the tour kicks off will be 75 years old, to sing¬†I hope I die before I get old. Whether My Generation will be included in the setlist remains to be seen. And 75 today isn’t what the age used to be when Daltrey shouted out the verse for the first time in 1965. More importantly, age first and foremost is how you feel inside, not some number – that’s what I keep telling myself as well! ūüôā

roger daltrey & pete townshend

Daltrey seems to be pretty aware of his current life stage. Telling Rolling Stone recently this may be his last tour, he added, ‚ÄúI have to be realistic that this is the age I am and voices start to go after a while. I don‚Äôt want to be not as good as I was two years ago.‚ÄĚ In other words, he knows when the time comes to stop. Until then, fans should continue to enjoy who I believe is one of the best rock vocalists.

One aspect of Moving On!, which escaped my attention until after I had purchased my ticket yesterday, is the symphonic format – a setup I feel can easily become overwhelming. Here’s Daltrey’s take he shared with the Los Angeles Times: “One mistake rock bands make is when they just have orchestras playing ‚Äúpads,‚ÄĚ as I call them, music that could be played on a synthesizer…Another mistake people make is taking the rock out. When Pete did ‚ÄúQuadrophenia‚ÄĚ with an orchestra but without the rock band, well, taking the rock out of ‚ÄúQuadrophenia‚ÄĚ was, to me, an anathema. It didn’t make sense. But you put the two together, it becomes huge. I was really bowled over by it. It’s triumphant.”

the who with touring band
Roger Daltey (far left) and Pete Townshend (far right) with their touring band (from left) in 2017: Jon Button (bass) and Loren Gold (keyboards). Not pictured: Simon Townshend (guitar, backing vocals) and Zak Starkey (drums)

Daltrey and Townshend also addressed the tour’s symphonic format in their above announcement. ‚ÄúBe aware Who fans! Just because it‚Äôs The Who with an orchestra, in no way will it compromise the way Pete and I deliver our music,” said Daltrey. “This will be full throttle Who with horns and bells on.‚ÄĚ Added Townshend, “Roger christened this tour Moving On! I love it. It is what both of us want to do. Move on, with new music, classic Who music, all performed in new and exciting ways. Taking risks, nothing to lose.” Let’s see how they put it all in action. I’m certainly intrigued!

In addition to sharing the stage with orchestras, Daltrey and Townshend will be backed by their familiar touring band: Townshend’s younger brother Simon Townshend (guitar, backing vocals), Loren Gold (keyboards), Jon Button (bass) and Zak Starkey (drums), the oldest son of Sir Richard Starkey, aka Ringo Starr.

The tour’s line-up is listed at the bottom. I’m going to join together with band on May 13 at New York’s Madison Square, where I saw them first, the only time with John Entwistle. I just checked on setlist.fm, and I now think it must have been in October 2000. My previous recollection was it happened as part of the 2002 tour and only a few months prior to Entwistle’s death in Las Vegas in June 2002. To celebrate the upcoming tour and The Ox and Thunderfingers, here’s a clip of one of my all-time favorites: The Real Me from Quadrophenia, The Who’s sixth studio album from October 1976. Entwistle may have been stubborn like an ox, but he was one hell of a bass player!

2019 North American Tour Dates

 

Summer Dates

May 7   Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids, MI

May 9   KeyBank Center, Buffalo, NY

May 11   Jiffy Lube Live , Bristow, VA

May 13   Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

May 16   Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, TN

May 18   Ruoff Home Mortage Music Center, Noblesville, IN

May 21   Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, Chicago, IL

May 23   Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre St. Louis, Maryland Heights, MO

May 25   Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia, PA

May 28   Little Caesars Arena, Detroit, MI

May 30   PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh, PA

June 1   Scotiabank Arena, Toronto, ON

 

Fall Dates

Sept 6   Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, MN

Sept 8   Alpine Valley Music Theatre, Alpine Valley, WI

Sept 10   Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, OH

Sept 13   Fenway Park, Boston, MA

Sept 15   Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater, Wantagh, NY

Sept 18   State Farm Arena, Atlanta, GA

Sept 20   BB&T Center, Ft. Lauderdale, FL

Sept 22   Amalie Arena, Tampa, FL

Sept 25   Toyota Center, Houston, TX

Sept 27   American Airlines Center, Dallas, TX

Sept 29   Pepsi Center, Denver, CO

Oct 11   Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, CA

Oct 13   Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, CA

Oct 16   Viejas Arena at Aztec Bowl San Diego State University, San Diego, CA

Oct 19   T-Mobile Park, Home of the Seattle Mariners, Seattle, WA

Oct 21    Pepsi Live at Rogers Arena, Vancouver, BC

Oct 23   Rogers Place, Edmonton, AB

 

Sources: Wikipedia, The Who website, Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, setlist.fm, YouTube