Bettye LaVette delivered one of the most trenchant analyses of Bob Dylan’s music Thursday night at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis.
She argued that he doesn’t write poetry but he writes arguments in prose. “And I’m completing these arguments,” she said, explaining her interpretations of Dylan’s songs.
She sometimes trims verses out of his songs, she continued, because “if you’re arguing with a black woman, you should get it done quick.”
LaVette just released an album of Dylan’s 12 songs, “Things Have Changed.” Produced by Steve Jordan with guest spots by Keith Richards and Trombone Shorty, it’s, in a word, brilliant. With every tune – whether well known (“It Ain’t Me, Babe”) or obscure (“Political World”), she interprets it in such a way that even the most dedicated Dylanologist will find new meaning.
If the record is brilliant, her 80-minute performance at the Dakota was even better.
Part of it is her personality. She’s friendly and funny without trying too hard to be either.
“I’m the oldest person in show business with a brand new record contract,” she proudly proclaimed of her deal with Verve, the Universal Music label that features Diana Krall, Lang Lang and others. “And 72 years old is not the time to start learning Bob Dylan hits. I can’t remember the damn words.”
So she uses lyrics sheets. Except she lost her eyeglasses. So after struggling through a couple of songs, she put on her sunglasses.
That meant LaVette was often sitting so she could glance at the lyrics. That meant her performance was less physical than her many previous gigs at the Dakota, which began in 2004 when the veteran R&B singer from Detroit made her comeback.
That it wasn’t a full-bodied Bettye performance – she’s known for emoting from her head to her toes -- didn’t matter because LaVette has pressed the refresh button. New record deal, new manager, new attitude. But the same kind of extraordinary interpretive skills that landed her at the Kennedy Center Honors (saluting the Who with “Love, Reign O’er Me”) and President Obama’s inauguration (offering Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”).
LaVette studies the lyrics, digests them and inhabits them. She makes listeners rethink the words and their meaning by elongating syllables, putting space between words and punctuating key lyrics that neither Dylan nor other interpreters do. She’ll even do a little testifying, not in a churchy way but more in an Otis Redding kind of pleading manner.
After going to school on Dylan, LaVette concluded: “He complains about every damn thing just like an old woman. Just like I do.”
Well, his “Just Like a Woman” was not in the set.
As the Minnesota bard himself has been doing lately, LaVette started her concert with “Things Have Changed,” the title track that serves notice that this isn’t the same old Bettye. In fact, the entire main set was Dylan material, mirroring the order heard on her album.
LaVette slowed down “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” imploring like a raw-voiced soul singer with several more “no no no’s” than Dylan, the Turtles or anyone else used to convey the vigor of their message.
The singer rode her band’s breezy funk-lite groove on “Seeing the Real You at Last”” and then had her four simpatico players dial it down to a whisper as she reflected “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind.” Thanks to the band and LaVette’s haunting ways, “Ain’t Talkin’” was spooky, moody and suitably mysterious.
If concertgoers gripe that Dylan reimagines tunes to the point that they’re unrecognizable, then you should have heard LaVette’s reading of “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Rising to her feet for a change, she followed her band’s toe-tapping southern soul groove before delivering the punchline with a cadence that suggested she’s indeed changing things. Props to Brett Lucas for his soul strutting guitar passage.
LaVette took a talk-sing approach to the spaced-out “What Was It You Wanted.” And she treated “Emotionally Yours,” which she said was her favorite Dylan number, like a hymn, almost praying over and over “come here daddy. Rock me. Save me.” When she finished, the full house responded with whoops and whistles.
She closed with what felt like a sermon, “Going, Going, Gone,” a slow blues-turned-reverie offered with a full-throated voice, accenting some phrases with loud exhortations and then easing down at the end to singing off the microphone, “I’m going, I’m going...” And then she was gone.
LaVette encored with “Before the Money Came,” a piece she wrote so she said she knew all the lyrics. It rocked with renewed sass. And the crowd responded with a long and loud ovation. So she returned for her familiar finale, an a cappella treatment of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got,” one song that didn’t complain about anything.