Bettye Lavette – Blackbirds
Whether you’ve heard of Bettye LaVette or not, take one listen to Blackbirds and you can guarantee that her name – and distinctly raspy timbre – will be one you remember long after the final bittersweet line has been sung.
Following the release of her well-received 2018 album, Things Have Changed – a raw, soulful retelling of a selection of tracks taken from Bob Dylan’s catalogue – LaVette’s latest offering is a concise collection of uniquely interpreted covers, primarily from the influential black women in music that she has long admired. The artist effortlessly reworks established classics from icons such as Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, making them seem somehow rooted in her own experience while simultaneously giving them new life.
With drummer and producer Steve Jordan at the helm, Blackbirds is an homage to heartbreak set against a backdrop of sombre piano melodies, smooth grooves, funky guitar licks and bluesy bass. It’s also the perfect vehicle for LaVette’s emotionally charged vocals, which are all at once poignant, hopeful, resilient, broken, powerful yet frail. In Simone’s I Hold No Grudge – the album’s punchy opener – the singer transforms the originally string-led track into a slick number, with every note punctuated by her signature tone. Empowered and vulnerable in equal measure, she sings assertively, delivering lines such as “I’m the person you can hurt once in a while… but crawling ain’t my style” and “a woman may forgive but never forget” with the fire of someone not merely reciting the lyrics, but living them.
One More Song, Drinking Again and Book of Lies – previously sung by Sharon Robinson, Dinah Washington and Ruth Brown respectively – each highlight LaVette’s striking vocals beautifully. In Book of Lies she makes the inspired choice of performing the opening lines acapella, while Drinking Again has her almost crying out the track’s title at the start, delivering an emotional gut-punch before the first verse is even through. One More Song is another standout and puts her innate ability to connect to the music to expert use, with the slow and steady piano melody and bass throughout providing a perfect accompaniment. Offering a brief respite from all the heartbreak is her decidedly sultry take on Lillian ‘Lil’ Green’s Romance in the Dark. A welcome surprise, the number recounts the thrill of romancing a lover away from prying eyes.
Della Reese’s Blues for the Weepers and Nancy Wilson’s Save Your Love for Me, while enjoyable, don’t leave much of an impression, and LaVette’s version of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit – though timely and strong as a standalone – is markedly less haunting and thought-provoking than the original.
Closing out the album is the slightly out-of-left-field but oddly perfect titular track by The Beatles. By subtly tweaking the lyrics, the artist sings from a deeply personal perspective that’s melancholic yet filled with an unwavering hope. When she sings, “I took my broken wings and learned how to fly” and the final line, “All my life I have waited for this moment to be free“, there is no doubt that she means it.
A go-to soundtrack for a chilled out, perhaps contemplative weekend, you can file Blackbirds under “sultry, sorrowful, Sunday soul”.
Photo: Mark Seliger
Blackbirds is released on 28th August 2020. For further information or to order the album visit Bettye Lavette – Blackbirds’s website here.
Listen to Book of Lies here: