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Bettye LaVette

The longtime recording star returns to Café Carlyle for an evening of rhythm and blues.

Alan Hill, Bettye LaVette, and James Simonson in LaVette's return engagement at Café Carlyle.
(© Michael Wilhoite)

Bettye LaVette has the blues; or at least if she doesn't, you'd never tell from the way she sings. At 68 years old, this great lady of soul can still pack a punch with her dynamite vocals and emotionally raw lyrical interpretations. Having spent several years with the touring company of the Broadway hit Bubbling Brown Sugar, she's clearly a very talented actress. But she's best known for her five-decade recording career. The release of her latest album, Worthy, coincides with her return to Café Carlyle. She dedicates much of the show to tracks from that album.

LaVette enters singing the first track, Bob Dylan's "Unbelievable." It has a driving beat that pulls us into LaVette's world. "I love playing the Carlyle because it feels like inviting people into my living room." And indeed, that is what the next 90 minutes feel like: an intimate private concert between friends. LaVette connects with each member of the audience, sending out special lyrics just for us.

She gives a haunting rendition of Mickey Newbury's "Bless Us All." Her version of Joe Henry's "Stop" pulses with irrepressible (and slightly menacing) life. Her version of the Cincinnati-based Over-the Rhine's "Undamned" is the very essence of the blues. She defiantly looks out at the audience and commands, "Don't count me out just yet " — and you know you never could.

LaVette can't help but put her own uniquely soulful stamp on each song she touches. Her achingly sad version of "Nights in White Satin" (originally performed by The Moody Blues) is unforgettable. You recognize the original song, but hear it in a whole new way through LaVette's distinctively expressive voice. She sends these songs through the ringer, squeezing out the raw emotion still clinging to the fabric of the notes.

This process is aided greatly by a stellar band. Pianist Alan Hill plays three different types of keyboards through the set. Bass player James Simonson works up a groove in many of the numbers. Percussionist Darryl Pierce maintains a backbone for LaVette's occasionally freewheeling rhythmic interpretations. Brett Lucas' guitar gently weeps through many of the interludes, including a powerful solo of "Where a Life Goes" by Randall Bramblett, "Who is apparently as sad as I am," LaVette says.

Indeed, Lavette's voice oozes sadness, but her speaking personality is funny and self-effacing. She's a living legend, so naturally her stories are grandiose. "All of my neighbors went on American Bandstand except me," the Detroit native says before singing her first single, "My Man — He's a Lovin' Man." She performs a series of pelvic thrusts in the interlude before explaining, "Dick Clark didn't like that part."

Oh yes, this lady still knows how to move. Dancing out through the audience to her new album's title track, "Worthy," we know that she's coming back.

Like a seasoned pro, LaVette gives a real encore, taking requests from the audience. With her decades of knowledge and experience, it feels like calling up a tune from a jukebox, but with the added thrill and spontaneity of live performance. Really, Dick Clark didn't realize what he was passing up.