Bettye LaVette
(© Carol Friedman)
Bettye LaVette
(© Carol Friedman)
Every minute of her 65 years of struggle and survival can be seen in Bettye LaVette's face and heard in her singular voice during An Evening With Bettye LaVette, the R&B legend's debut show at the Cafe Carlyle.

The evening is not for less-is-more devotees, in any sense, as it lasts a full two hours and demands not just rapt attention on the audience's part, but a willingness to share in LaVette's emotional intensity. But those who make the effort will be rewarded with a rare experience -- and a master class in the art of lyric interpretation.

While the show traverses all 50 years of LaVette's up-and-down career, many of the act's most remarkable selections come from her most recent CD, the aptly named Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, in which the singer manages to find deeply personal meanings in lyrics written by young white men.

By changing the pronoun "you" to "I" in Lennon and McCartney's "Blackbird," LaVette magnificently transforms the song into a cry from the heart from a woman who has finally gained peace after a lifelong struggle. You may never think of this classic song in the same way ever again.

A similar never-give-up attitude imbues an incisive take on Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," and her full-bodied renditions of Pete Townsend's "Love Reign O'er Me" and Ringo Starr's "It Don't Come Easy" will linger long after one leaves the room.

Choosing standouts from the remainder of the 22-song set may be a matter of personal preference, but I doubt anyone could not be blown away by LaVette's commitment to "Your Turn to Cry," "Joy," "Round Midnight," and, especially Etta James' "Damn Your Eyes," which is practically a three-act play in itself.