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Bettye LaVette

A note from Pelecanos:

 

The following was originally written for and published in Sweden’s Sonic magazine. They have now given me permission to put it up on the website. Since the article was published, Drive-By Truckers have released their new album, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, a nineteen track collection (it will be a double album when they release it on vinyl) which I recommend without reservation. Fans were a bit leery, waiting to see what DBT would come up with, as integral member Jason Isbell had left the band, but any doubts have been put to rest upon first listen. With bassist Shonna Tucker stepping up to the mic on several of her originals, Hood and Cooley splitting vocals and songwriting duties, and with additions John Neff and Spooner Oldham, the band has managed to maintain quality control while achieving a level of maturation that has not lessened their fury or joy for playing rock and roll. Here’s the article on LaVette.

 

I’ve got to admit, I was a bit skeptical when I read the advance praise given to Bettye LaVette’s new record, The Scene of the Crime. That is not a slight to LaVette, an extraordinary R&B vocalist whose first (and biggest) hit goes back to 1962’s “My Man (He’s a Loving Man).” Her story, familiar by now, is a publicist’s dream: LaVette, a contemporary and friend of Atlantic and Motown hitmakers like Wilson Pickett and David Ruffin, records a reportedly flawless album (Child of the Seventies) at Muscle Shoals studios in 1972, only to have it shelved by the record company for unknown reasons, thereby derailing her career. In 2005, she cuts a heralded comeback album, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, bringing her back into the public spotlight. And now even more acclaim for The Scene of the Crime, recorded at Fame Studios, home of the storied Muscle Shoals Sound (as in, Bettye has returned to “the scene of the crime,” where she cut her buried treasure). Cue the flashbulbs.

 

With all of that, I was doubtful. Press releases aside, soul singers and rockers singers rarely recapture the hunger or fire of their youth, do they? I mean, Aretha is never going to surpass I Never Loved A Man the Way I Love You. Al Green will never light it up with spiritual, righteous fury the way he did on Gets Next to You. And no one, except for aging baby boomers, wants to hear anything new from a refurbished Who, Rod Stewart or the Stones. So I wasn’t expecting much. That is, until I actually listened to The Scene of the Crime. Because this is the record of Bettye LaVette’s career.

 

Not to take anything away from Ms. LaVette, but the accolades for this record certainly should be shared with Patterson Hood, who co-produced it with David Barbe and LaVette, and Hood and partner Mike Cooley’s band, Drive-By Truckers, who play on it. Hood, who hails from the Muscle Shoals area of Alabama, and his cohorts give The Scene of the Crime its delta-rock, deep soul sound, shading and elevating LaVette’s still-powerful, touched-by-God vocals. To be more precise, Hood and DBT take what would have been a very good record on its own and make it one for the ages.

 

I’ve been told that Drive-By Truckers have not blown up in Sweden, so let me say a few words here. Over the course of the last ten years, they have garnered a rep in America through their records and live shows, which are transcendent, jaw-dropping experiences. The early records, Pizza Deliverance and Gangstabilly, set the template for a melodic punk band that organically, rather than through commercial calculation, created something new: regional rock that fused storytelling tradition with naked self-examination, played loud. The double CD, Southern Rock Opera, their scary, exhilarating tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd, hard rock concerts, musclecars, beer, liquor and weed, and the cock-strong swagger of youth, garnered them critical attention. Literate leanings combined with a trademark, three-guitar attack earned them an unusually smart and raucous audience. The addition of Jason Isbell to the band on the next three records, Decoration Day, The Dirty South, and A Blessing and a Curse raised the bar on the band’s songwriting and brought their obsession with myth to the foreground. To use The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as a touchstone, Patterson Hood and Company “print the legend.” In case you don’t own any of their CDs, Decoration Day is the masterpiece, but I’d pack The Dirty South for the trip to that proverbial desert island as well. Have I made my point? DBT is the rock band of the decade. No joke.

 

Now back to The Scene of the Crime. In addition to several Drive-By Truckers, session players include, among others, David Hood, (yep, Patterson’s dad) who performed on many of the landmark Muscle Shoals recordings of the 60s and 70s, and the legendary Spooner Oldham, who makes a significant contribution here on Wurlitzer organ and piano. From the fat-bottom, swamp guitar opening bars of Eddie Hinton’s “Still Want to Be Your Baby (Take Me Like I Am),” coupled with LaVette’s declaration of independence and conditional commitment (“I been this way too long to change, now/You’re gonna have to take me like I am/But you know I’m still your baby/So what if I drink a little bit, that’s all right/Daddy, didn’t you tell me you like to hear me laugh?”) you just know you’re in for something both reverent and cathartic. LaVette keeps it going throughout the record, making these (mostly) covers her own, from the slow burn of Frankie Miller’s “Jealousy,” to the last-call-for-alcohol, pedal steel inflected “Somebody Pick up My Pieces,” written by Willie Nelson. On “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette),” penned by LaVette and Patterson Hood, she gets her aural revenge as, fittingly, both Bettye and the band cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. The set’s stunner is a reading of an Elton John/Bernie Taupin composition, “Talking Old Soldiers.” Accompanied only by Spooner Oldham’s piano, David Hood’s bass, and a bit of pedal steel, LaVette delivers a shattering vocal take that is damn near gospel in its intensity. In the liner notes, Patterson Hood calls it “one of the most profound experiences in the history of soul music,” and he’s right. You’ll want to listen to this one late at night, a glass of something amber in your hand as you stare into the fire. It’s that good.

 

Memo to all you upstarts coming out of London and rehab: this ain’t retro soul. This is soul. Who’d have thought we’d have a genuine R&B classic released in 2007? Here it is.